Palm Takes on Apple and Microsoft

A sexy smartphone aims to beat iPhone touchscreens and Windows Mobile

Ever since the Palm Pilot was introduced a decade ago, its maker has had some devoted fans. Today it looks set to gain some more. Palm just announced the Pre, a smartphone that has an iPhone-like touchscreen and a full keyboard, plus a new interface that looks easier to navigate on a small screen than desktop-style windows.

The most interesting features, at least as glimpsed from the back of a packed CES auditorium: In addition to a bright 3.1-inch multi-touch screen, the Pre has a touch-sensitive area below the screen. That lets you flick to turn pages without smudging your reading area. When you want to type, a QWERTY keyboard slides out from underneath.

As nice as the gadget itself looks, though, the real benefits seem to be in the new operating system, called Palm webOS. No need to click through cluttered windows or icons to find a particular program — the right one will automatically pop up as soon as you start typing on the keyboard. Say you begin to type “Vegas.” First the phone will search your contacts and programs and show you any matches; if it doesn’t find any, or if that’s not what you want, it’ll automatically search Google for “Vegas” and show you the results.

WebOS also makes it easy to keep track of info from many different places. It’ll display info from both Google and Outlook calendars in one place, show your pal’s Facebook photo next to his phone number, and group on one screen all the conversations you have with a particular friend, whether they’re by text or AIM.

Also fun: You can get a charging dock, called the Touchstone, that’s one of the first products to use wireless charging. Plug the round-ish dock into an outlet, and then juice up the Pre simply by placing it on top of the Touchstone — no need to connect it with wires. (That means that the Pre must have some kind of inductive charging tech built in, which may be a first for a gadget — usually you have to stick annoying dongles onto a gadget to get it to communicate with a wireless charging pad.)

Judging from the audience reception, it looks like there will be a lot of people eager to try out the Pre when it hits Sprint by this summer, for an as-yet-undisclosed price.