Learning From the Pre

March 15th, 2009

Widescreen iPod, revolutionary mobile phone, and breakthrough Internet communication device.

The iPhone did what the Treo, Blackberry, and Windows Mobile couldn’t do: it defined convergent mobile devices for the mainstream market.

It is an Internet device. It plays your media. And it makes phone calls.

The iPhone changed the phone market in much the same way the iPod changed the MP3 player market. Others had products, some decent, most terrible, but none were convincing; they were confused devices. The iPhone removed that confusion.

Most phone companies have released iPhone “killers,” which tends to mean they are worthless devices. Palm, though, had remained silent, apparently content to make the Treo.

That changed in January when Palm announced the Pre. The Pre is the single-best competitor to the iPhone, because it takes the iPhone’s most important element, Internet communication, and re-thinks it. While the iPhone either syncs personal data (contacts and calendar data) from the Mac or MobileMe (which syncs with the user’s Mac), the Pre syncs this data from different web services. Facebook, Gmail, Exchange — the Pre connects to and syncs across the data, but does something smart. If one source has different data than another (say, Facebook has a different mobile phone number listed for Anne than Gmail), rather than merge the two together and sync back to each, the Pre just combines the two sources together and removes any duplicate information.

That’s smart. Not because it’s an incredible idea, but because it’s an example of Palm thinking through what it means to be an “Internet communication device,” and how it should work, and improving on it.

While the Pre embraces web services, the iPhone keeps the web at a distance. It’s hesitant. The iPhone either syncs personal data from the desktop, or through MobileMe — which relies on the desktop for its data.

Both are doing the same thing but with different bases. For the Pre, the user’s “desktop” — where they really do work — is these web services. It assumes when people send an email, they don’t open Mail. They browse to Gmail. When they want to check their calendar, they don’t open iCal. They browse to Gcal. The web is their storage. The Pre is a satellite to these web services, and ignores the desktop.

For the iPhone, the user’s central device is their own computer. They send email using Mail, and manage contacts with Address Book. Even MobileMe, which makes Mail, iCal and Address Book accessible on the web, is really a conduit to the user’s desktop. It isn’t meant to be used as the primary front-end.

So for iPhone OS 3.0, my question is: why not combine both approaches?

The iPhone should be able to pull data from these web services, and combine them smartly. If I use Google’s suite of tools, I should be able to make a change in any of three areas — my iPhone, my desktop, or online — and the change should propagate throughout. All three should sync effortlessly, on their own.

Currently, we are forced into a needless choice: either use desktop applications (and be able to sync with the iPhone), or keep your data tied up in web services.

the Pre just flips the choice: either use web services (and sync with the Pre), or keep your data tied up on the desktop.

I, and I would guess many of you, like using desktop applications. I don’t want my data stored in “the cloud” only, and I don’t want to use limited-featured web apps when on my Mac. I don’t want to be forced into a binary choice between the desktop and web applications — I want to use both. The iPhone should integrate both, giving users the choice to sync with their desktop, web applications (Google’s specifically), or both.

Apple’s response, of course, is users already have that choice, and its name is MobileMe. That is true enough, but intentionally crippling the iPhone to push MobileMe seems like a poor decision, because Apple’s long term strategy is to position the iPhone as the dominant mobile platform, not to create a lot of MobileMe customers.

MobileMe is a complimentary service to the Mac and iPhone, and not the primary product; MobileMe’s goal is to make the Mac and iPhone experience even better.