Palm and Sony trump Apple at CES

Macworld muted this year as Apple puts in a final appearance

One of the great industry dramas that takes place each year is the concurrence of Macworld and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

As Apple invades the consumer electronics space and cellphone market — and as CES replaces Comdex as the "everything" show the contrasting style and substance of Macworld and CES provide a dramatic glimpse into who's up, who's down and who's who in consumer technology.

Macworld stole the thunder from CES in 2007 with Steve Jobs' shock-and-awe iPhone rollout. In 2008, Macworld killed again with MacBook Air, more iPhone goodness and a lot of bragging about the general ascendance, elegance, awesomeness and unstoppability of Apple in consumer electronics.

But this year, Macworld landed with a thud. News preceding the show sucked the wind out of the normal enthusiasm. What's a Macworld keynote without Steve Jobs? What's a Macworld without Apple?

Still, the Mac faithful proved hopeful, predicting stunning new innovations for Macworld 2009.

Before the show, the Applesphere buzzed with chatter about an impending "iPhone Pro" or "iPhone Elite" upgrade. The wonderful improvement would, according to this vision, include a physical keyboard that wouldn't reduce the size of iPhone's huge touch screen. It would fold or slide out. Some also hoped for a better camera, new user interface innovations and other iGoodies.

The other major fanboy expectation was that, finally, Apple would enter (and, natch, dominate) the thriving netbook market. Nobody expected a boring mini-MacBook, but instead a revolutionary new form factor that would demonstrate, once again, Apple is smarter than everyone else.

Surprisingly, the "iPhone Elite" and "MacBook nano" were both announced. But not at Macworld and not by Apple. They were unveiled by Palm and Sony at CES two industry laggards written off by some industry observers as pathetic has-beens.

Palm Pre

Palm's realisation of the dreams of iPhone fans, called the Palm Pre, has all the expected trimmings of a modern smartphone: GPS, wi-fi, QWERTY keyboard, 3G, stereo Bluetooth, three-megapixel camera, accelerometer, etc.

Faithful to the faithful's vision for iPhone, the Palm Pre is a full-screen, multi-touch phone with a slide-out physical keyboard.

The Pre's webOS is something altogether unique, innovative and unexpected. While the UI lacks iPhone's severe minimalism, it trumps the iPhone in raw inventiveness. With multitasking built around the organising metaphor of "activity cards", it's actuallyfundamentally different from any other device ever sold.

It even has a unique inductive charger. To charge, you set it on top of its base, rather than plugging anything in or inserting the phone into a cradle. Doesn't that sound like something Apple would have announced?

The Palm Pre is the second true MPG (multi-touch, physics and gestures) consumer product ever to ship. (iPhone was first.) But the Pre's webOS adds some new gestures, such as getting rid of stuff by flicking it off screen.

While many expected Apple to announce something like this, nobody expected Palm to. The company caught the industry and the pundits totally by surprise.

Sony Vaio P

Meanwhile, Sony shocked the industry by leapfrogging every Tom, Dick and Asus in the netbook space to release a near-perfect form-factor for the category: the Sony Vaio P.

The ideal netbook should be designed around the keyboard, not the screen. This is exactly what Sony did. And the results are spectacular. Because the keyboard is deep enough (from front to back) to contain a keyboard and no deeper, its under-127mm depth is narrow enough when closed to fit into a jacket pocket, according to Sony. That may be stretching the truth or at least the jacket but the Vaio P is vastly superior in portability and ease of handling than any other netbook. At the same time, its keyboard is easier, faster and more enjoyable to use.

Sony also went beyond even the movie-standard wide-screen aspect ratio all the way to 1600 x 768. The screen is really, really wide.

The Vaio P also has a keyboard that is a copy of the MacBook Pro. Instead of the concave, narrow, sharp-edged keys you find on most PCs, laptops and netbooks, the Vaio P has low, flat, wide and rounded-edge keys.

Besides the Apple-like form-factor elegance and Apple-like keyboard, the Vaio P has other features one would expect from an Apple "netbook": great screen, GPS and optimisation around playing music and video. The Vaio P sports a cool, instant-on environment that displays Sony's XrossMediaBar (also available on other laptops and the PlayStation) for playing media without booting Windows Vista or burning through battery life needlessly.

And now, the bad news

Unfortunately, these great new products are being released in the middle of a recession.

The Palm Pre will be reasonably priced, no doubt, but people aren't upgrading phones like they used to. This would be okay, but Palm is on the ropes financially and the Pre's stunning innovations may come too late to save the company.

Sony's Vaio P is awesome, but expensive. They say it starts at US$900. But with the flash-storage upgrade you want, and the RAM upgrade Vista needs, the real price will be higher than your average full-size laptop. In a recession where netbook prices are dropping well below $300, that's a tough sell.

There's no doubt that Palm and Sony shocked and impressed everyone with their announcements, and stole Apple's Macworld thunder. But while industry watchers worry about Macworld, Jobs and Apple, we really should be worrying about Palm and Sony. With Palm Pre and the Sony Vaio P, we have new reasons to hope these companies come through the recession in one piece.

Apple, on the other hand, will be fine.

All three companies have proved they have still got what it takes to thrill consumers. It's great to see that innovation and competition are still alive.

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