Multitasking Fail: Sometimes, Apple is just right

A prominent blogger switches from Palm Pre to iPhone? (Link thanks to daringfireball.) Why?

If a call comes in, the phone starts ringing, and I can answer and talk to the caller, but most of the time it takes another 10 seconds before the Phone application’s UI comes up! So if it’s from the front door and I have to press a button to buzz someone in, I have to either hope the app starts responding before the caller hangs up; or I have to slide out the physical keypad and pray that it buffers the keystroke. Trying to answer the door feels like a game of whack-a-mole.

(Emphasis mine.) It’s not like Palm has some kind of secret sauce for writing fast software on mobile devices. And it’s not like Google does either, so don’t expect Androids to somehow magically solve this problem.

So even though I hate Apple’s developer-hostility, and even though I hate that now I’m giving money to AT&T, and even though AT&T’s network is way less reliable in San Francisco than Sprint’s, and even though I absolutely despise the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard… at least now I have a phone whose software actually works.

I don’t think you’ll find a single iPhone user or developer with much nice to say about AT&T, and yet we all seem to love our iPhones.

I thought about trying out an Android phone, but the reality is that the most positive review I’ve ever heard about Android was damning with faint praise along the lines of, “it sure does show the potential to someday be an iPhone competitor.”

Yup. That’s how big Apple’s lead is.

Post Script: Deja Vu

Back in the old days of Mac OS 8 and Windows 95, “true pre-emptive multitasking” was one of the features Windows fanboys loved to point to when comparing Windows 95 to Mac OS 8. Funny thing was, the cooperative multitasking on Mac OS worked just fine for everything anyone could think of, and — in particular — Apple had hacked Finder to allow it to handle things like file copy operations in the background* (even though Finder was a single application on OS without “true” multitasking). As a result, Windows 95 had “true pre-emptive multitasking” but a single file copy would lock up Windows Explorer (and indeed the destination Window for a file copy operation is still locked up as of Vista), while Apple’s humble Finder could handle file operations in the background.

* Most power users had been enjoying this feature for some time thanks to Connectix Speed Doubler.

What’s the single most common “other” task you’re likely to want to do in a multitasking OS? File operations of course. Would you rather have “true multitasking” but file copies lock up your file browser, or “cooperative multitasking” and file copies don’t even lock up the destination Window?

With the iPhone, Apple has opted for deliberately crippled multitasking that handles emails, the phone, instant messages — but doesn’t drain its battery or make the phone unresponsive. Google and Palm have checked the “multitasking” box without really exploring whether that’s really a net benefit to the end-user.

Palm Pre

Two Years Too Late, Too Big, Too Heavy, and With Too Small A Screen

The Palm Pre is now entering the upper reaches of the hyposphere.

It’s been two years since the iPhone launched, they’ve had the benefit of hiring a bunch of Apple veterans to work on it, and the iPhone to steal ideas from. Oh, and a long history of developing smartphones and PDAs to draw upon. As you’d expect, with all these advantages, the Palm Pre is bigger (see note 1), heavier (see note 1), has a smaller screen (see note 1), and makes no mention of processor capability or battery life on its main tech specs page.

According to Jon Rubenstein — formerly of Apple, now the chief technical guy at Palm — if there’s one thing he hopes he learned at Apple it was “taste”. And the best they could come up with is a black puck with rounded corners?

Here’s an interesting video from All Things Digital (D7) featuring interviews with Palm’s (now) key people and demos of the Pre in action. My initial impressions are that the UI looks fiddly, early reports (see note 2) are that the keyboard is very hard to use (it actually sounds worse than the iPhone’s glass keyboard, since the latter is designed to compensate for mistaken keystrokes).

The iPhone's "glass keyboard" next to the Pre's plastic one. Note that the iPhone's keyboard expands if you turn the phone sideways (and becomes very easy to use).
The iPhone's "glass keyboard" next to the Pre's plastic one. Note that the iPhone's keyboard expands if you turn the phone sideways (and becomes very easy to use).

Also, if you look at the demos in the video, the “multitasking” WebOS looks (a) slow, and (b) somewhat faked. I’m guessing when an app slides into view, you’re looking at a screenshot, which then sits there for a moment before suddenly coming to life. (I’m guessing that they give background processes very small time slices and then give them a chance to update their screenshot when they’re within “sliding distance”.) This may make the demos look smooth, but it will rapidly become annoying to users (much as I get infuriated by Windows’s tendency to sit frozen for two minutes after booting).

Attention to Detail

If you look at a bunch of screenshots of the Pre, one thing you may notice is how little information is on each screen. For example, in the “send a mail message” screenshot most of the screen is wasted on crap like a photograph of the recipient and a big grey — sorry gray — bar to stick it in. The Photo Albums screen shows five photo albums vs. seven with a hint of an eighth for the iPhone. The launcher app has room for nine icons, while the iPhone manages sixteen. In summary, every screen seems to have been designed to look good rather than function well. (It’s also probably a result of the Pre’s slightly smaller screen.)  The problem is that when you don’t balance form and function you tend to produce an uglier and less useful result. You know who else makes this kind of mistake when ripping off Apple’s ideas? Microsoft.

Palm wasting screen real estate. If I have a small screen you'd better be damn sure to use 40% of it to tell me who the email is from, to, and its attachments. (See note 3.)

You may remember Tufte complimenting the iPhone UI design as removing a bunch of “debris” from the user interface. Well, Palm put it all back in.

What Palm Isn’t Dwelling On

There’s a golden rule in advertising. Take your shakiest feature and make like it’s your strongest feature. But as a corollary, if you are completely missing a feature or you’re an active laughingstock, don’t mention it at all. This is, presumably, why AT&T and Verizon both claim to have fabulous network coverage (they both suck, of course). It’s why GM is advertising about how it’s a company you can depend on (maybe that might stop now as this claim moves from shaky to laughable). And it’s probably why Comcast never mentions customer service in its ads.

The Pre web pages don’t offer any screenshots of web browsing. (Apparently web browsing is not WebOS’s strong suit. Ironic? Edit: looks like it’s not a big problem at minimum, see Update 2)

Predictions

Will every iPhone 1.0 buyer get a Pre? I very much doubt they’ll jump at it without seeing the iPhone 3.0 (and possible new hardware) announcement. And anyone who has been keeping track knows that the features Apple has already revealed in iPhone 3.0 already exceed many of the Pre’s headline features (e.g. universal search, turn-by-turn GPS navigation). Apple has known what the Pre was going to offer for over six months, and it may be many things, but stupid isn’t one of them.

Updates

Walt Mossberg just reviewed the Pre, and didn’t say anything about web browsing. David Pogue’s Pre review likewise fails to even mention browsing at all. When you’re given a review copy of something the PR Agency (or whatever) handling it will send you a helpful review template to base your review on. Interesting, huh?

In her Pre review, Ginny Mies of PCWorld at least mentions that:

The Pre’s full HTML Web browser renders pages beautifully. You can have as many browser windows open as you want (you’re limited only by the available memory), and you can still save pages for offline viewing (say, while in flight)–a huge boon that Palm OS devices have always had, and that competing devices lack.

It seems to me that the overall tenor of the reviews is “wow, it’s actually almost as nice as an iPhone”, which is hardly going to do Palm much good given their dismal third party app situation and the fact that their point of comparison will be obselete in a few days.

Update 2

Daringfireball links to two more reviews from Gizmodo (“If Palm had just been able to make the Pre feel and look less plasticky, the closed-state exterior would be almost perfect.” — the reviewer hated the phone when open, demonstrating that you could cut cheese with its sharp exposed edge) and Engadget (the web browser is fine and “In a somewhat unscientific run of repeated DSLReports mobile speed tests, we found that the Pre averaged 634Kbps downstream, while the iPhone and G1 nabbed 552Kbps and 413Kbps, respectively.”, it can view office docs and PDFs, but falls over with largish/complex docs) — so I stand corrected if that’s true).

And finally, from the Gizmodo review: “I’m bored of the iPhone. The core functionality and design have remained the same for the last two years, and since 3.0 is just more of the same, and—barring some kind of June surprise—that’s another year of the same old icons and swiping and pinching. It’s time for something different.” Ah Gizmodo! Now there’s one of the iPhone 1.0 buyers who will jump ship instantly. Who needs consistency?

Notes

  1. The iPhone has a 3.5″ screen and is 115.5 x 62.1 x 12.3mm (88cc), 133g. The Pre has a 3.1″ screen and measures 100.5 x 59.5 x 16.95mm (101cc), 135g.
  2. “When you try and type on the top row of keys, your finger hits the bottom part of the front piece and on top of that, you often hit multiple keys at the same time while typing” Boy Genius Report
  3. The ability to view Office and PDF documents is another feature conspicuously absent from the Pre’s advertised features.