Palm Pre to Challenge iPhone, BlackBerry

Software and sexy handset shows that Palm can still compete in smartphones

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Dave at CES: There is life in Palm after all. The struggling smartphone pioneer introduced its Pre handset in an impressive demonstration of software and hardware. Palm says it can change the way people use their handsets and challenge the iPhone for innovation and ease of use, and the BlackBerry messaging.

In perhaps the smoothest demonstration I've seen of a new technology, company execs explained new metaphors like "cards" that represent different functions running at the same time. Fingers flick through open E-mails, IM chats and contact lists in quick fashion. Contacts, calendar and messaging are integrated with Facebook, Google Calendar and other Web services.

The handset itself has sexy, rounded edges and a sharp, bright 3-inch screen. A slide-out hardware Qwerty keyboard gives it a clear advantage over the iPhone. It comes with ample add-ons, including 3G support, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

In a breakthrough touch, the phone can be dropped onto an optional, puck-like base for wireless charging.

The phone is due sometime in the first half of this year. Many questions remain unanswered, including price and the decision to partner exclusively with Sprint, which itself is struggling. The carrier is losing  subscribers amid customer service and coverage issues. Palm and Spring are both desperate for a winner.

Also, as impressive as today's demo was, it didn't cover some of the tougher challenges that the iPhone tackles with aplomb -- including video -- and barely touched on others, such as music organization and playback.

But Palm has a well-earned reputation for making phones that are easy to use. It's good to see the company strive to maintain that characteristic while reaching for a phone that can do more.

Those are my first impressions. What do you think?