Way back in 2002, a company called Handspring completely transformed the way you and I view cell phones, by releasing the first real smartphone.
The company, a spin-off of PDA pioneer Palm Computing, developed the Treo smartphone. And it was revolutionary.
Unlike the BlackBerries of the time (which were glorified pagers), the Treos had a real OS -- the Palm OS. They were little portable computers that you could carry around in your pocket, and which had full access to the cellular networks of the era.
On Sprint's voice and data network, Treo really came to life. Now, e-mail and web browsing was something you could have on the go. And Palm so clearly saw the potential of the technology that it brought Handspring back in-house.
The result was one of the greatest innovations of the last decade -- the high-powered modern smartphone. The Palm Treo had (and has) everything that defines a smartphone today:
1) Applications installed from online stores (like Handango);
2) A touch-screen interface (with easily the best mini-keyboard ever made below it);
3) E-mail on the go;
4) Synchronization with a PC via a data-cable and sync software;
5) Replacing media players with its own media playing and music software;
6) A robust developer community;
7) The famous "Palm ringer switch" that allowed you to switch it to vibrate mode without using software;
8) Web browsing on the go.
In 2007, five years later, Apple released its iPhone.
iPhone was a very good copy of the Treo, with some new innovations. However, the basic iPhone model was an iteration of the Treo design. Apple replaced the hardware keyboard with a (difficult) software keyboard, added in some eye candy, and made the screen bigger and in glass, but the most striking thing about iPhone was how similar to Palm it worked.
The Apple device's applications menu was a prettier version of the "classic" Treo's. It served as a media player, could check e-mail, and browse the web. It synchronized with the PC via a USB cable and sync software. Just like Palm's original Treo, it presented text message conversations in a "threaded" chat-style manner, rather than in the common non-linear model of every other phone on the market. And it had a dead ringer (ha ha) for the ringer switch that Palm invented on the Treo. Later, Apple copied Handango and added a (much more restrictive) Application Store feature.
Palm's reaction was not to sue Apple, but rather, rush to compete. It released the Centro, which was a consumer version of the Treo that cost around $50 but offered all the same power in a smaller form factor.
It released the Treo Pro, a new Windows Mobile phone that is slick.
And it announced, at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the completely new Pre smartphone.
Pre includes an improved version of Palm's touchscreen, a newer, more comfortable keyboard and also includes a totally new OS, dubbed WebOS, that connects your corporate and personal information together into a single interface using a slick paradigm Palm invented called "Synergy." It allows you to run multiple applications at the same time using Palm's new "card" interface. It updates over the air, so there's no need to use USB connections to plug it into your PC anymore. It even charges wirelessly via a charger called the Touchstone.
In short, Pre is so far beyond anything on the market, including Apple's now aging iPhone, that it makes the iPhone appear a bit stale (much like the iPhone did to the Palm Treo in 2007).
Apparently, Apple is worried about maintaining its existing lead with the iPhone. But rather than prepare with a blockbuster knockout product of its own, Apple has rumbled about suing Palm over patents it holds for touchscreens.
So small but nimble Palm, which invented the touch-screen smartphone category (and most of the user interface conventions Apple borrowed for the iPhone) did nothing when Apple showed up on the scene. But now that Palm is offering a phone with significantly more features and innovation than Apple's present product, out come the patent threats. And given Palm's diminutive size compared to Apple, Apple's threats could undermine Palm's viability and prevent Palm's competitor from ever coming to market.
Someone explain to me, again, how the government monopoly that is a patent "protects innovation?"