Palm Inc has launched a touchscreen smartphone along with a brand-new WebOS operating system and an "intelligent" cohesive contact management setup Palm calls Synergy.

The Palm Pre will be an EvDO 3G smartphone with a 3.1in 320x480 touchscreen that can recognise gestures as well as individual taps. In contrast to Apple iPhone, it will have a slide-down Qwerty keypad to make text entry easier "rather than a cheesy software keyboard". However, in common with the iPhone, a two-fingered pinch is used to zoom in and out of photos and web pages.

The Pre is slightly curved to make its use as a phone more comfortable than some of the application heavy but bulky handsets with which it will be competing. It weighs a scant 4.8oz and can be used both single-handedly or with two hands for easier text entry. A distinguishing element is that the Pre's touchscreen extends to below the screen area to a 'gesture area' where you can swipe a finger left or right to move forwards or backwards through web pages, emails and music or photo libraries.

Palm PreThe Palm Pre supports 802.11b and g Wi-Fi, has a 3Mp camera with a flash and has an 8GB internal memory. It will have a T1 4350 processor and a built-in GPS receiver with turn-by-turn navigation. This will be provided by Telenav.

It will also have a removable battery - something the iPhone has been criticised for lacking. Other features include Bluetooth v2.1 with stereo headphone support, a 3.5mm headphone jack, micro USB slot and the same hardware on/off button with option to put the handset in flight mode found on the Palm Treo.

The Palm Pre will initially launch exclusively on the US Sprint network. Preorders are being taken at sprint.com, with the handset available from mid-2009.

Introducing the multi-touch smartphone, executive chairman Jon Rubenstein explained that "the next wave is clearly mobile and Palm's DNA is mobile". Rather than the aim being to hook up with the desktop, said Rubenstein, Palm sees the aim of the smartphone to hook up to the cloud (aka the internet) where you can access all your content, wherever it is and all from the palm of your hand.

Palm president and CEO Ed Colligan said that in contrast to PC manufacturers and other consumer electronics companies that also make handsets, Palm thinks in terms of "fingers not buttons and pockets not processors". Palm is touting the Pre as a device on which the operating system and hardware is invisible, with its intuitive and intelligent interface uppermost.

It has an integrated search feature that initially looks for contacts and relevant entries on the phone itself before initiating a Google search for the whole or partial term or characters entered.

Colligan said that when designing its Palm Pilot mobile device, it was to compete with pen and paper "because that's what people were using" and that the same approach to simplifying people's lives via invisible technology continues to be the company's aim.

Palm sees that while consumers have taken to mobile devices such as smartphones, there is still a need for a single, unified device that not only does email, text and instant messaging and calls, but also serves as an MP3 player, digital camera, mass storage device and internet access device. Blogs, status updates, Twitter, Facebook pokes and other social niceties also need to be kept up with.

Smartphones let you browse all your information drawer by drawer, rather than bringing everything together in a single place. This keeps work and leisure separate, but also means you have to go to several locations and launch several applications to complete your work and social affairs. For example, you might go to your Facebook and see what your friends are up to, upload photos and update your status, then check your personal webmail, your Outlook work emails and have an instant message chat with your kids.

Your Outlook, he said, has hardly any pictures, but your Facebook account where all your real friends are has loads - the aim is to bring the two together.

Where you have multiple contact methods for someone, the Pre stores them all in a single contact list and lets you decide on the most appropriate email, IM or mobile phone number to use to contact them - and which of your contact methods is most appropriate for your message to be sent from.

Palm refers to this approach as Synergy, and replicates the setup through its email, IM and phone book, so you don't need to log out of Outlook and in to a Gmail or Hotmail account when you want to send someone an email.

Conversations started in one mode of communication can be continued in another, so you may start off emailing someone, see that they are available via AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ping them and IM and, finally, text them.

The Palm Pre handset will allow users to do all these things, but without having to constantly open and close applications. The Pre OS supports multitasking, so you can start composing an email, answer a phone call or a query that arrives in your inbox and check information on a web page, without having to save the message as a draft and subsequently return to it.

Refreshingly, the Pre displays notifications, text and IM messages unobtrusively at the bottom of the screen so they don't interfere with the email you're composing or the web page you're browsing. It can also be set to ignore persistent messaging so you can focus on what you're trying to do without interruption.

Palm Pre picture

It is also possible to put personal diary commitments in the background and view only business meetings on the Palm Pre's diary.

Sprint mobile CEO Dan Hesse, who came onstage at the Palm CES keynote announcement to proselytise about the merits of the Pre and his company's mobile network, said his favourite function was that you can take a call, put it on speakerphone while you check your calendar and that of your contacts, check when you're free and issue an invitation to colleagues all while continuing the conversation.

A hardware launcher button brings up an overlay of all available applications, while shortcuts at the bottom of the screen provide access to standard applications such as the phone, web browser and email. The Pre offers view live thumbnail views of what it calls Cards - favourite and recently-visited web pages, photo libraries, task lists and other applications - and to "shuffle" cards about depending on their importance. This means that while applications may not necessarily be running, the current page or item last used in that app is displayed for easy access.

The Pre is based on the new WebOS, an open-source operating system consisting of CSS, HTML and JavaScript. Palm anticipates third party interest in creating applications to run on it - something Apple and RIM have done with notable success on their iPhone and BlackBerry handsets - and says it "is built with developers in mind".

And in both a nod to and a dig at devices from the likes of Apple, Nokia and RIM, Rubenstein said "You need to have a great phone, but that phone needs to be more than one with a bunch of applications bolted on".

As well as scoring a massive hit in the smartphone market with its iPhone, Apple has exceeded expectations with the success of its App Store that allows users to customise their handset by downloading add-on applications developed by third parties.