Palm Pre vs. ZTE Open

My friend Matt asked me what I thought of the Palm Pre 2 compared to my Firefox phone (a ZTE Open).  It was more than I could fit in a Twitter message, so thought I’d turn it into a blog post.

In a way the two phones are very similar in that they both provide a platform which treats HTML5 web apps like first-class native applications.  On the other hand, one (the Pre), represents the end of the line, the most mature version of a product with this vision.  The Firefox phone represents the beginning of a similar vision.

The Pre 2 (and WebOS) is polished and sophisticated, but frozen in 2010.  It has clever, well-thought-out interactions and beautifully designed graphic elements.  Performance is good, on par with other devices of it’s time and the hardware fits together well and is solid and robust.  The Pre 2 was a premium device and it shows, and includes features like inductive charging that are still considered exotic in most phones.

The ZTE on the other hand is a primitive device, designed to be inexpensive. It’s well-made compared to other phones in its price range, but that said it’s far from luxurious.  The processor is slow, the camera is feeble and the touchscreen is limited to one touch at a time.  Even so, the device performs admirably given its humble components and is surprisingly useable for a device that can be had for less than $100 USD without a contract.  Hardware aside, the real star of the show is Firefox OS.  Like WebOS, FFOS gives web apps access to device features that other platforms reserve for native applications only.  This gives web developers much more creative latitude than other platforms, and opens the door for mobile software that is truly device independent.

So which is better?  Well, if nothing else you could say that the ZTE Open w/ Firefox OS is the right choice because the Pre is a dead-end product.  While WebOS does continue on as an open-source project, and there are some companies intending to release products based on it, they are things like television sets and at the moment it looks like there’s no plans for another WebOS phone from anyone.  Additionally, many of the existing WebOS apps no longer function because they are built against older versions of service API’s that have been depreciated, so for example while there are several great Twitter clients for the Pre, none of them work with the current version of Twitter’s API.  This doesn’t mean that the Pre is no longer useful, but unless you plan to maintain the code, there’s no guarantee that the apps you use will continue to work as time goes on.

On the flip side, there is an active open-source community producing new code for WebOS, and even a package management system (“ Preware ”) that makes finding and installing software from these efforts easy.  So for the intrepid hacker, the Pre can be a useful platform even if mainstream developer support has waned.

Conversely, the ZTE Open provides a basic platform for learning how to build the mobile web apps of the future.  It’s clear that the Mozilla foundation intends to back the Firefox OS effort for the foreseeable future, and as the constraints of less-open platforms like Android and iOS become visible to more and more users, adoption of FirefoxOS will grow.  This, coupled with the low cost-of-entry for these devices, mean that time spent learning how to build apps for FirefoxOS will likely be rewarded down the road.  If not in the hands of well-off high-end smartphone consumers, then in the hands of those who are first entering the smartphone market and others who see the platform as a tonic to the aches and pains of other more established platforms.

- Jason