Palm Pre: Where's the music?

As with RIM's BlackBerry Storm, the Palm Pre sounds like a great smartphone, but music's an afterthought. To me, that makes it a poor iPhone competitor.

Palm's Pre won CNET's Best of CES award for 2009, and is getting tons of love from around the tech world.

Not a bad accomplishment for a smartphone with a completely new operating system, from a company written off as dead not long ago.

Cool smartphone, but will it replace your MP3 player? Corinne Schulze/ CBS Interactive

I wrote something like this about RIM's BlackBerry Storm and got some heat for it, but still...where's the music?

I don't mean that the Pre won't play music--of course it will. Palm even announced a deal with Amazon.com to let users buy music downloads without any intervention (cooperation? interference?) from the carrier, Sprint.

But let's recap why the iPhone became the first smartphone to capture the consumer imagination. Sure, its design had a lot of pleasant "just works" surprises, from the bright touch screen to the way the keypad autocorrects for big fingers. But a large reason is because Apple branded it as an extension of the iPod, which has become synonymous with mobile music.

When music fans were looking to consolidate from two devices (MP3 player, phone) to a single one, the "i" brand reassured them that they wouldn't get a second-class music experience.

Equally important: iTunes, the software with which every iPod user was already familiar. It's not perfect. I know people who hate it, particularly on the PC. But compare it with the proposed Pre experience, as covered by PC Magazine:

9.) How do you get music and video onto the Pre?

You can drag and drop it over from your PC using USB mass storage, or buy songs on the device using a built-in Amazon MP3 Store client.

My immediate reaction upon reading those three little words, "drag and drop"? Yecch. No sync? No library? No rating system? No playlists, preset or automatic? No way to view and change information about songs?

Here's the thing: without iTunes, there's no iPhone. And without the iPhone, there's no consumer smartphone audience. I don't doubt that Palm (and RIM, for that matter) understand mobile communications and information management, and there's certainly a lot of room for improvement in business phones. But if I'm going to replace my MP3 player with a phone, these phones won't cut it.

That's why Microsoft's recent justification for the Zune --it helped the company learn how to build music management software and an online store--didn't ring as false to me as it did to some other folks.

The device might be a failure. But whenever Microsoft rolls out its next-generation mobile-phone platform, at least it has a reasonable story for managing and buying music.

Follow Matt on Twitter.

 

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