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Palm's crazy comeback rides on a teeny phone that isn't a phone

One of the oldest names in the mobile industry just got a massive reboot.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Palm is best known as a pioneer in the worlds of personal digital assistants and smartphones. Even though the company has been dead for years, the brand still boasts a cult following among techies who stared at screens before staring at screens was a thing.

So it's surprising that Palm's resurrection comes in the form of a device designed to take you away from one of those screens -- to stare at an even tinier one.

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The new Palm isn't a phone but a companion mobile device that looks like a baby iPhone. It's designed to act as a lightweight substitute when you're at the gym, at a club or spending time with your family. The $349 device, sold exclusively in the US by Verizon Wireless, will pair up with your existing phone but has its own cellular radio that requires an additional $10 charge on your monthly wireless bill.

That's right, our phones have gotten so big they now need their own phones.

Palm is a new San Francisco-based startup licensing one of the most venerable names in the smartphone industry, all to create a device meant to free us from the constant bombardment of email notifications, Slack messages and Instagram posts plaguing our lives.

If that sounds familiar to you, it's because tech heavyweights Apple and Google have already embraced the idea of reducing your dependence on their products, largely through apps that track your usage and, in some cases, block access to key features. These additions emerged following a rise in consumer concern that everyone, and children in particular, is spending too much time on a phone.

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This thing is tiny. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

"We think technology should recede," Palm co-founder Dennis Miloseski said in an interview last week. "The product should be a supporting character in our lives."

Palm is also the latest to try its hand at resurrecting a classic brand in the mobile world at a time when Apple, Huawei and Samsung dominate the market. Other companies have tried to breathe new life into the Nokia and BlackBerry names, once stalwarts in the mobile world, but they've had mixed success.

Palm, for its part, isn't just slapping an established logo on a new phone. The startup is trying for something different.

Co-founder Howard Nuk compares the new direction of Palm to the reinvention of the Mini Cooper brand by BMW, noting that a new generation of fans learned to appreciate the compact vehicle.

But whether the new Palm is a clunker or sleeper depends on how many people buy into this bizarre concept.

Another mobile companion

Nuk describes a weekend in Napa using only the Palm. The smaller screen elicits a different mindset, he said, noting that he was prone to use it less than the typical larger phone. He mainly uses the Palm's 12-megapixel rear camera and 8MP front-facing shooter for photos to post on Instagram.

It's something he describes as "life mode," the company's shorthand for focusing on the real world around you rather than those pesky notifications. Nuk and Miloseski spend a lot of time talking about the philosophy behind the product, with the specs seemingly an afterthought.

Getting you off your screen is an idea larger companies have already endorsed.

"We've developed new tools to let you control those devices, instead of those devices controlling you," Rick Osterloh, head of Google's devices business, said last week at the launch of the new Pixel. He cited features like parental controls and the ability to track how much time you spend on apps. Apple's newest version of iOS boasts similar features.  

When we finally got to the Palm product, you can't help but to think of it as a toy. The front display, which is only 3.3-inches long, and the back are slabs of Gorilla Glass 3 that sandwich a titanium or gold-colored aluminum frame.   

The screen boasts a resolution of 720p and 445 pixels per inch, while the rear camera looks like the iPhone X's vertical dual-camera setup, only the spot for the second lens is a flash. It has a single USB-C port for charging or for headphones, and a single button used to wake the device or, with a double tap, call up a quick action like Google Assistant or the camera.

It employs a facial recognition sensor for unlocking, which Nuk and Miloseski said would be useful in gym settings or other times your hands aren't necessarily free.

While Palm runs Android 8.1, known as Oreo, the startup tweaked the interface so you see a larger carousel of apps on the home page.

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The Palm device will come with loads of accessories -- that you have to buy separately. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The device pairs to the phone via Verizon NumberShare, so if someone calls your main phone, the Palm rings too. Because of its platform, Android users will have an easier time syncing the same apps on their phone to this device since it has full Play Store compatibility.

The idea is that you grab this device when you don't necessarily need a full-fledged phone, but you don't have as many trade-offs as a smartwatch.

"It's a portable but full-phone experience," said Brian Higgins, vice president of device and consumer product marketing for Verizon.

Palm says the device also pairs with iPhones, but many apps, including ones you pay for, will be missing. You won't have access to iOS apps like Facetime. Nuk says if you want messaging to work, you'll have to disable iMessage and rely on Verizon's proprietary messaging app.

Good luck with that.

So is it a phone?

One of the challenges Palm faces is explaining what the device actually is. While tiny, it's shaped like a phone and works like a phone. It has its own cellular radio, even if it's paired to your main phone's number. 

Yet Verizon and Palm insist it's a companion device, and won't sell it as a standalone product. 

"I understand why they are saying it's not a phone, but that may sow confusion," said Ross Rubin, an analyst for Reticle Research. He calls the idea of a second "lifestyle" phone a tough pitch. 

Higgins said Verizon plans to train its sales force to properly push the device in stores. He hinted at promotional bundles with bigger smartphones for the holidays. 

Heavy hitters

Miloseski's and Nuk's resumes mean you can't completely write off this concept. Miloseski spent time working on the user interface for Gmail and Google Docs, and also helped with the development of the Chromecast streaming device. Nuk worked at Frog Design, a firm best known for working with Steve Jobs on early Apple products. He helped with the design for Beats headphones.

The two met at Samsung, where they were responsible for the Gear Fit fitness tracker and helped push the Gear smartwatch franchise toward its round face.

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The unique-looking Gear Fit wearable was designed by Miloseski and Nuk while at Samsung. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The two broke away from Samsung in late 2016 to start the on the mobile companion project. While meeting with TCL, a Chinese company best known for making cheap televisions and Alcatel-branded phones, they began discussing the use of the Palm brand. TCL purchased the rights to the name in 2015, but hadn't done anything with it.

By March of the next year, the two had signed a deal to license the Palm name. After the success of selling connected watches, Verizon jumped in last year.

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Rather than the usual home screen, the new Palm uses larger app icons that you can more easily tap. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

"Verizon has embraced us," Miloseski said. "We're not a giant company, and they've been able to recognize that and tailor the way they work to a startup like us."

What stood out to Higgins was the fact that Miloseski and Nuk didn't just shrink down the device but thought about the user experience with the tiny screen.

The other notable figure behind Palm is NBA superstar Steph Curry, who serves as an investor and creative strategy director. Anyone who remembers Alicia Keys' "work" with BlackBerry, or Lady Gaga and Polaroid, will snicker at the title, but Nuk insists Curry is an active member of the company, offering input on the Palm device's effectiveness as a workout device.

Curry wasn't available for an interview because of his other job.

Nostalgia play

BlackBerry plays a tangential role in this unlikely story.

TCL, which licenses the Palm brand to Miloseski and Nuk, has itself paid for the rights to use the BlackBerry name in its own phones.

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BlackBerry, under TCL, has been trying to make keyboards on phones a thing again. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

TCL, alongside HMD Global, a startup licensing the use of the Nokia name in phones, and Palm make up a trio of companies trying to restore the luster to faded brands.

So far, the results have been mixed.

HMD Global, for instance, got the biggest buzz by rereleasing classic Nokia candy-bar phones. While the Nokia name isn't terribly strong in the US, around the world HMD saw its market share jump to 1.1 percent in the second quarter, compared with 0.01 percent a year earlier, according to Counterpoint Research. The US is still a challenge, with the Nokia 7.1 unlikely to get very far without carrier support.

"Nokia brand driven by HMD global has been a good comeback story," said Counterpoint analyst Neil Shah.

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Yep, the Palm device takes photos too. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

TCL insists its BlackBerry lineup has exceeded expectations, even if the numbers are small. The company hopes to capture 3 percent to 5 percent of the premium phone market, though Shah notes that its share remains tiny due to limited distribution. Despite a few splashy launches, the phones, which are some of the few that retain a physical keyboard, consistently get lost in the shuffle.

Palm hopes it'll stand out by eschewing the legacy of the Palm Treo, WebOS-powered Pre or PDA.

"We've taken a brand that has a love and following and reinvented it," Nuk said.

Originally published Oct. 15 at 5:00 a.m. PT.
Updated Oct. 16 at 5:30 a.m. PT: Added analyst and executive quotes, as well as more background. 

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