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The Pre is being rolled out in the United States through Sprint-Nextel during the first half of 2009. ((Jae C. Hong/Associated Press))

Las Vegas — There's little doubt that the big story from this year's Consumer Electronics Show was the rebirth of Palm Inc., which introduced a new smartphone (the strangely named Pre) to rave reviews.

Once upon a time, the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company ruled the personal digital assistant market with its ubiquitous Palm Pilot. But as PDAs morphed into smartphones, Palm lost its way and ceded the market to Waterloo, Ont.-based BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd., which is now being fiercely challenged by Apple Inc.'s iPhone.

Written off for dead by many, Palm came roaring back at CES with the Pre — a smartphone that combines the best features of BlackBerry and the iPhone, and which adds a dose of its own innovations.

Blend of iPhone, BlackBerry

Palm's smartphone product line manager, Matt Crowley, gave CBCNews.ca a hands-on look at the Pre at CES. The phone looks similar to the iPhone, with a full touch-screen, but is a little more rounded.

Its biggest physical difference is the full slide-out QWERTY keyboard, which addresses the main complaint about Apple's device — the difficulty of typing on a touchscreen. The Pre thus adds one of the best things about most BlackBerrys — the ease of typing — to an iPhone-inspired touch screen.

Like the iPhone, the Pre features multi-touch and an accelerometer, so photos and videos switch between horizontal and vertical view when the phone  is turned.

The Pre goes a step further with its touch capability, however. The area just below the touch screen, which would normally be considered dead space on most phones, is actually a gesture pad that allows the user to navigate menus and programs on the phone without touching the screen.

The gesture pad comes in handy for the phone's "Card" display system, which is similar to how windows are shown on a computer desktop. Each application that is running, whether it's the MP3 player or web browser, is displayed as a Card on the screen, and it can be rearranged just like windows on a computer.

Applications

The Pre has all the bells and whistles that have become standard in smartphones, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, carrier-assisted and stand-alone GPS and a three-megapixel camera. From there, however, the phone goes into relatively new territory.

Chief among Palm's innovations is the decision to throw the doors wide open on its application store — a depot of downloadable software that allows users to customize their phones. While the company will offer free and certified applications, anyone who wants to design software for the Pre will be free to do so and won't be required to seek Palm's approval, as seen with others such as Apple.

The openness will spur innovation, Crowley said, but users will also have to be wary because there will certainly be some malicious applications distributed.

"We're going to be a lot more open," he said. "That's good and bad."

The phone also packs a universal search function like that found on many computers. Users can type in the first few letters of the phrase they're looking for and the phone will display matching contacts, websites and files. It's a useful feature, given that phones are becoming more complex, Crowley said.

The Pre can also be charged wirelessly when placed on a small puck-shaped magnetic induction device, which then plugs into the wall. The Pre interacts with the charger as well, so if a call comes in while the phone is being charged, it can be answered by just lifting it off the pad without pushing any buttons.

One other small innovation is the capability for U.S. users to download music over the air from Amazon.com's MP3 store, which means tracks can be had cheaply and without going through a cellphone carrier.

Rollout plans

The Pre is being rolled out in the United States through Sprint-Nextel during the first half of 2009. Sprint uses the same CDMA cellphone network technology that Bell and Telus use, but Palm has announced a GSM version, the standard used by the Rogers cellphone network. Crowley said international availability announcements, possibly including Canada, are coming soon — possibly at the GSM mobile phone conference in Barcelona in February.

While many cellphone makers wait to announce new products at the annual Barcelona show, Palm chose to unveil the Pre at CES in order to avoid information leaks before then.  The phone is currently obtaining certification by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, a phase where product information often becomes public.

"We wanted control over how it was announced," Crowley said. "It was good timing."

Finally, what's with the name?

The offbeat name was the topic of much internal discussion, Crowley said, but Pre was settled on because the device was designed with the intent of trying to anticipate its user's wishes.

"It conveys the feeling that it's what you're thinking of," he said.