It’s hard to top Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone in 2007, which felt even at the time like we were watching something world-changing. But the folks at Palm certainly tried.
Even two years after the iPhone was released, its competitors were still far behind, and some brazenly rejected Apple’s threat. Sure, Android was growing alongside iOS at that point, but lacked hardware that came close to the iPhone’s polish. Meanwhile, BlackBerry CEO Jim Balsille said the iPhone was “one more entrant into an already very busy space.” Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer laughed at it.
But in the same year the iPhone was released, Jon Rubinstein, who helped lead development of the iPod, left Apple for Palm: a company best known for its chunky (but beloved) PDAs. Then, two years after taking control of product development at Palm, he got on stage at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show to show off something almost as enchanting as the iPhone: the Palm Pre.
At over an hour, there’s a lot to watch, and the specs may be outdated. (Before 5G, there was EvDO, and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth were real selling points.) But I think this is still one of the great tech keynotes — something that, on the heels of a revolutionary product, managed to meaningfully up the bar.
What was so incredible about the keynote is that nothing about webOS and the Pre felt derivative of what we’d seen before. It was a completely new user interface chock-full of new ideas of how a phone could work and how apps could be made. So many of the features seemed ahead of their time even then — and many of its features have been adopted by competitors since then. It even had an incredible wireless charging dock! (It’s not apples-to-apples, but if you’re keeping score, AirPower was canceled... in 2019.)
It’s a shame that Sprint exclusivity, dominant competitors, and self-inflicted wounds eventually snuffed Palm out of the market, but many of its ideas live on. You can’t pick up an iPhone or Galaxy without holding a little bit of the Palm Pre’s dream.