Palm, RIM Struggle for Smartphone Formula

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, October 18, 2007

What gives a smartphone its brains? Is it the contacts list and calendar synced to your computer, the wireless Internet access, the music playback, or something else?

Two companies that have been in this business longer than most, Palm and Research in Motion, have just introduced new versions of well-established smartphone designs. Judging from the Palm Centro and RIM's BlackBerry 8820, even these two veterans can't settle on what makes a phone smart.

What the Centro includes, such as a digital camera and music-playback software, the 8820 leaves out. And vice versa: The 8820's wireless networking is absent from the Centro and its Treo siblings.

If you could fuse bits of both devices, you might have the ideal smartphone. Instead, picking one of them requires deciding which one's defects bother you less.

Take the most basic job of any phone: voice calling. The Centro makes it easier in subtle but significant ways. For example, you can silence its ringer by sliding a switch at the top of the device, then activate its speaker by tapping a big button on the screen. (The Centro costs $100 or $200 after rebate, depending on your choice of two-year Sprint contract.)

But the 8820 lets you talk for much longer than the Centro does. It stayed on a call for just over eight hours, while the Centro barely made it past 3 1/2 hours. (The 8820 costs $300 after rebate with a two-year AT&T Wireless deal.)

That's the state of the competition between these two companies. RIM has repeatedly out-engineered Palm. Its phones are lighter and thinner than any Treo and even the more compact Centro. But Palm's software -- despite not getting any serious work in years -- got enough of the basics right at the start that it has retained a decent chunk of its value. RIM, meanwhile, has struggled to grasp how to simplify its products.

An awkward interface can seriously hold back a smartphone, which is supposed to make your computer's address book, calendar, to-do list and notes portable and accessible full-time.

And so Palm holds an edge over RIM when it comes to helping organize your life. The Centro's touch-sensitive screen is more intuitive than the 8820's trackball-controlled interface, and its core programs are cleaner, better organized and backed up by a wider choice of third-party applications.

RIM's developers have fixed many defects in recent years -- for example, exiting a newly revised calendar entry no longer discards your edits -- but the 8820's software still often acts fussy and looks ugly. Many tasks require scrolling up and down overloaded menus. RIM doesn't even load a readable font, instead using blocky, squared-off type.

Both phones are tripped up by clumsy, obsolete desktop programs. Neither Palm nor RIM bothered to include software to sync its phones with the address book and calendar in Windows Vista (and, in Palm's case, the ones in Mac OS X). Just installing each company's programs in Vista required serious contortions.

Any smartphone with Internet access has to play an extra role: pocket-size e-mail reader and Web browser. Here, too, Palm's and RIM's past sets up their present.

The 8820 has the fastest wireless connection of the two, thanks to a WiFi receiver that makes up for the slower cell-network connection. The 8820 and other BlackBerrys also feel faster, since they let you do other things while a Web page or e-mail message streams in.

The Centro, meanwhile, doesn't complement its Sprint wireless broadband access with any WiFi, and the obsolete underpinnings of its software force you to sit and watch as things download.

But the Centro was less annoying to use, once it connected to the Internet. The Centro has presets for many widely used Internet services; I had only to type in an e-mail address and password to get going. On the 8820, I had to visit a slow-to-load AT&T Web page to store a user name, password and other settings. This BlackBerry's mail software also ignored any formatting in messages, displaying all of them in the same plain type.

Things went about the same in Web browsing. Neither of these devices is in any danger of being mistaken for Apple's sleeker iPhone. But Palm's browser made Web pages, even some full-size ones, notably more legible than the 8820 did.

Most recent smartphones have taken on yet another job, substituting for an iPod. In this area, Palm soundly beats RIM. The Centro's Pocket Tunes program is more elegant and capable than the 8820's crude media-playback software, and the Centro's microSD memory-card slot is easier to get at than the 8820's.

Either of these devices can serve effectively. But when the iPhone and a growing selection of Windows Mobile devices exhibit more creativity and capability, neither the Centro nor the 8820 can fulfill one last smartphone obligation: drawing the occasional envious glance from passersby.

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