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Can a Palm Pre multitask better than an iPhone?

The mobile pioneer's impending smartphone has generated more buzz than any product since Apple joined the market. But breaking out from the pack hinges on a few key features.

Palm's comeback attempt rests squarely on the notion that it has found a better way to manage your complicated digital life.

Ever since its January coming-out party at the Consumer Electronics Show, Palm has generated buzz for the Pre unlike any other phone released since Apple's iPhone arrived in June 2007 (that includes impressive phones such as Research in Motion's BlackBerry Bold and HTC's G1 Android phone.) The two phones will be forever compared--not just because of their consumer-oriented styles and emphasis on gesture-based user interfaces, but because of the very real enmity between the proud team that worked on Apple's historic iPhone breakthrough and the ex-Apple executives and engineers attempting to rebuild Palm.

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While the iPhone has set the standard for future smartphones, Palm's WebOS delivers two important improvements that the iPhone can't yet match: true multitasking between applications, and a subtle notifications system that doesn't interrupt your train of thought. It does that while unveiling its own stamp on the multitouch user interface that Apple introduced to the masses with the iPhone and finding room for a slide-out hardware keyboard favored by CrackBerry addicts.

There are several reasons why no one should expect the Pre to turn the smartphone world upside down just yet. Business users still love their BlackBerrys and RIM is aggressively courting the consumer. Apple has a killer brand, great audio and video player technology, and more than 35,000 applications inside an easy-to-use App Store that grows by the hour.

All the same, Palm has taken a few steps forward that developers and users should take seriously. Until we know how much it's going to cost, it's impossible to predict how many other smartphone users will see value in these improvements, but they (and the competition) will notice. The Pre is expected to arrive sometime within the next few weeks, although all Palm has said is that it will be out in the first half of 2009.

Let's examine the subject of multitasking first, which has been a major criticism of the iPhone almost ever since it was released.

Outside of a few core applications, such as the phone and iPod player, an iPhone user must completely exit out of one application in order to use another. For example, you can return to the home screen and select another iPhone application while staying connected on a phone call, but you can't move back and forth between two applications while allowing the first application to run in the background, making it harder to use applications like instant messaging or streaming radio.

Apple has said these limitations are necessary to prevent battery life from dropping off a cliff and to ensure application stability. That is perhaps part of the reason why Palm has chosen a different development model.

WebOS applications will be created with standard Web development tools such as CSS, JavaScript, and HTML that run on a version of the Webkit engine. This doesn't mean they are "Web applications," which require a connection to the Internet to work. It does, however, mean they are (in general) more lightweight and less-resource intensive than iPhone applications, which are developed using the Objective-C programming language.

Palm's "cards" view for switching between applications in WebOS. Palm

That may limit the performance of WebOS applications. Don't expect the sophisticated gaming community, for example, to embrace the Pre. But Palm's approach means it will be very easy for anyone who has developed a Web application to get up and running on Pre development, which could help expand the number of applications in the early days of the device if the smartphone world likes what they see.

Other mobile operating systems--notably Android and Windows Mobile--allow multitasking, but Palm has developed an elegant way of switching between "cards," something vaguely akin to a combination of Windows' Alt-Tab switching and Mac OS' Expose, or switching between tabs on a Web browser. New applications can be launched using the "Launcher" software button on the bottom of the home screen, and users navigate between different applications by flicking finger left or right.

It remains to be seen how many open WebOS applications it will take to crash the Pre. (Palm product managers at CTIA 2009 refused to speculate, but said it would be very hard to overload the phone.) But Palm's implementation of multitasking is slick, as is its method for delivering notifications.

Notifications are the lifeblood of the mobile computer: if I'm carrying an always-on, always-connected computer, then I want to know right away when something has happened. With the release of iPhone OS 3.0, Apple plans to expand its notifications service to third-party applications, whereas right now it only works for core applications such as incoming phone calls, text messages, and calendar appointments.

If you want to ignore an incoming message, it will disappear into a thin notification bar that's present almost everywhere you go in WebOS. Palm

But Apple's system for notifications uses a pop-up window that interrupts you in the middle of a task, pauses the application, and forces you to make a choice (close, view) before proceeding. Palm's notification bar is much less obtrusive.

When a Pre user receives an e-mail or text message, that alert will pop up on the lower part of the Pre's screen as a horizontal bar. But the alert won't interrupt the application, and if the user chooses simply to ignore that alert, it will soon retreat to the lower edge of the screen to be accessed later when the task at hand is completed. That alert will always be at the bottom of the Pre's screen no matter what application or view you've selected, along with some brief information such as the sender or subject line.

Apple's approach lets you dismiss the alert and continue what you were doing but forces you to remember that you received notifications from a specific application, such as the ESPN Alerts application demonstrated at the iPhone 3.0 event. A number outlining how many alerts you've received will appear over the icon for that application--just as you can see how many e-mail messages await you--but if you're in a different sector of the home screen, you won't necessarily see the alerts for that particular application.

Some may dismiss these differences as simply user preferences. But multitasking and notifications are among the most important reasons to own a mobile computer, and few companies have managed to come up with something that advances the game along those lines since the iPhone OS made its debut. Palm has.