When Palm Inc. introduced a Treo smart phone with mobile operating software from one-time rival Microsoft Corp. in January, legions of fans worried that their beloved Palm operating system would eventually go away.
Put those worries to rest. The Palm operating system on the Treo is here to stay: The Treo 700p with the familiar software platform is now on the shelves at Sprint and Verizon wireless outlets.
For die-hard users of Palm software, that's good news.
For the rest of us?
Well, if you're thinking of buying your first smart phone - a device that can make calls as well as manage data like e-mail or documents - the folks at Palm were smart to give Microsoft's mobile software a shot.
I've been testing both versions of the Treo - one with Microsoft Windows Mobile 5.0 (700w), the other with the Palm OS (700p) - and I believe that for new users, Windows is easier to learn and navigate than the Palm operating system.
Why? Foremost, Windows Mobile feels and works a lot like its brawnier computer-based sibling.
To get to a list of all the applications on the Treo 700w, you hit a Start button, akin to the Start button on Windows XP. It's easy to learn the basics pretty quickly.
You navigate from a start page, or what Microsoft dubs Today, to see quickly what coming appointments you have or what e-mail or text messages are in your inbox.
It also provides easy access to contacts for calls and is intended as a quick start guide to help with daily planning.
The Windows software on the Treo 700w prioritizes what I think is the most important reason for getting a smart phone, which is staying in touch in an organized manner. After understanding the basics, you can explore the myriad of options a smart phone offers.
From browsing the Web, sharing pictures and even creating a Word document on the fly, there is plenty you can do. Smart phones are basically mini-computers in the palm of one's hand.
But the Palm OS still has one clear advantage: After a decade of developing mobile software for its personal digital assistants, there are by far more Palm applications to entice users. These range from trip planners to expense account organizers to gaming favorites like solitaire.
If you have a keen interest in something, odds are there is a Palm program - or one from the army of third-party developers - for you.
But there's a downside to all that familiarity. It's intuitive to Palm's hard-core users, but a new system for everyone else.
If you're on your second, third or fourth Palm OS-based device, you will have no trouble at all navigating the Treo 700p. In fact, the software was barely upgraded from the Treo 650.
There are basically three "home" views with the Palm OS.
If you hit the dedicated home key, you go to a view with all the device's software applications, shown by icon. These include calendar, e-mail, Web, etc.
The second "home" is more practical, and this opens when you hit the phone key.
Below a graphic display of numbers used to tap out a call - you can also use the keyboard for calling - is a quick-glance list of the programs you deem most important, such as voice mail, e-mail or the calendar.
But while the voice-mail listing tells you how many messages you have, you must tap on the calendar to see your appointments.
The e-mail key worked the same way - at least for Web-based e-mail - so I had to tap that to see if I had new mail. I could not test this with a corporate e-mail account.
A third "home" option is to hit the calendar key, and you get a view similar to Microsoft's "Today" page, including the day's appointments and new messages.
It's not so much that Palm software is complicated, it's just not as convenient as Windows Mobile.
For those Palm loyalists getting ready to fire off an angry e-mail, my point is this: If you're just getting started with a smart phone, Windows Mobile is easier to learn and it communicates better with the user.
Also, as the Windows Mobile operating system is installed on more smart phones - it's the OS for Motorola's nifty new Q - there will be more programs available to build a bigger library of applications similar to what the Palm OS offers.
From a physical standpoint, there is practically no difference between the two Treos. There is a slot at the top for an external memory card to hold data, music or photos. The keyboards are identical and fairly easy to navigate with one hand, though I wish the keys were a bit more spread apart.
Neither has V-Cast
But there is a difference in the service you get from the wireless carriers. The Treo 700p is available from both Sprint and Verizon, while the 700w is only at Verizon.
Neither Verizon Treo includes the carrier's V-Cast music and television service, which is disappointing for such a powerful mobile product.
The Sprint Treo 700p includes the carrier's package of TV (including channels that are broadcast live) and radio (with a growing package of commercial-free radio stations offered from Sirius).
I've been listening to various Sirius stations as I wrote this and never once did I lose the signal.
For the serious road warrior who spends countless hours in airport waiting rooms, these media packages are a very nice option to have.
Like a brick
I applaud Palm for giving users a choice between two operating systems on the popular Treo platform. I think you would make a good choice if you went in either direction, but the folks who design the Treo should keep something else in mind.
The Treo 700 feels like a brick compared with Motorola's new Q. If Palm wants to keep Treo users happy, it needs to do more than adding a new software platform to the device. It also needs to go on a diet.
Eric Benderoff writes for the Chicago Tribune.