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Palm unveils new OS and handset

The company hopes its new webOS operating system and Palm Pre handset will reverse its recently declining fortunes
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Palm has introduced a new mobile-phone operating system, called webOS, along with the Palm Pre, the first device to use it.

The Pre and webOS were announced on Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and Palm said they will appear in the US sometime during the first half of this year. A version of the Pre handset suited to Europe and Asia is in the works, but no availability dates or pricing have yet been announced for the UK or the rest of Europe.

WebOS marks the first new Palm operating system since 2002, when Palm OS 5 was released. The company span off its operating-system business as a subsidiary in 2003 and sold it to the Japanese company Access in 2005. 

Palm has not been doing well of late, with declining sales of its Windows Mobile-based Treo handsets and the recently announced layoffs of hundreds of workers. At the Nasdaq's close of trading on Thursday, after the webOS launch, Palm's stock had gone up by almost 35 percent.

Palm's webOS lets developers use standard web languages such as CSS, XHTML and JavaScript. The company said in a statement that it hopes this will open up the new OS to "tens of millions" of developers.

"More people can develop for the platform and can do it faster than ever before," the statement read. "The platform's flexible environment will also allow developers to distribute their applications over-the-air via an on-device Palm application store." Palm quietly launched its mobile-based app store in mid-December last year.

However, the incompatibility between older Palm applications and the new OS means Palm's existing developer community would have to adapt to the new code.

A major feature of webOS is Palm Synergy, which links contact and other information that might otherwise be split across various applications. For instance, a contact who is repeatedly listed across Outlook, Google and Facebook accounts will be displayed in a unified view, as Synergy will recognise them as one person, Palm said. Updating that contact on the webOS device will automatically update their details across the various linked PC or web accounts.

Synergy can also provide unified views of various conversation types, so that a conversation that spans instant messaging and text messaging can be presented as a single thread, Palm said. It is also possible to see which of your contacts are online — a feature known in the telecoms industry as 'presence'.

The new operating system also makes use of multitouch interaction, making it possible to "move easily between activities like flipping through a deck of cards and rearrange items simply by dragging them", the company said.

Palm's Pre device, which will initially be available exclusively through the US operator Sprint, combines its 3.1-inch, 320x480-pixel touchscreen with a full Qwerty keyboard that slides out vertically. The US version of the handset uses the EVDO revision A connectivity standard for web surfing and calls, but the version that will come to the UK will use HSDPA. Other connectivity options within the handset include 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR with A2DP stereo Bluetooth support.

The handset uses a three-megapixel camera with an LED flash and what Palm calls "extended depth of field". It also has a standard, 3.5mm headphone jack, and incorporates an accelerometer so web pages and other information can be reoriented on the screen according to which way the Pre is being held.

Although the Pre does not have memory card expandability, the device has 8GB of internal storage and can be plugged into a USB slot for external storage. The handset weighs 135g.

Also available for the Pre is an inductive charging dock called Touchstone. The user simply puts the handset onto this dock's plate so as to charge the phone. The Touchstone is sold separately.

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