Palm today launched the Treo 500v, its first foray into the consumer smartphone market. The Palm Treo 500v will be sold in the UK and in seven other European territories exclusively through Vodafone. As with its predecessor, the Treo 750v, the 500v runs an adapted version of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 6.0 operating system.

Importantly, anyone signing up for “a fairly standard” 12-month Vodafone mobile phone contract will pay nothing for the handset itself. Particulars of exactly what the subscription cost would be were not available at the press launch for the Treo 500v but will be disclosed imminently.

Vodafone already offers the Treo 750v – a handset described by a Vodafone spokeman as a “high-end business smartphone” for free on a £35-a-month phone contract. It’s likely that contracts for a Palm Treo 500v will start at less than this.

Vodafone also has an exclusive deal with BlackBerry maker RIM (Research In Motion) to sell its 8310 handset – another smartphone aimed at the consumer and ‘prosumer’ end of the market - at least until the end of October.

PC Advisor has already had its hands on the BlackBerry 8310 and can report that the two handsets look and feel broadly similar. The BlackBerry 8310 has a deeper, squarer screen than the Palm Treo 500v and has a 3Mp camera in comparison to the Treo’s 2Mp. However, both come in a lightweight pale grey plastic coating and have curved edges designed to appeal to the design-conscious consumer.

Both the Curve 8310 and the Treo 500v offer push email and Wi-Fi and have a removable memory card slot via which handset owners are expected to add videos and music tracks to play back. The Treo bests the Curve, however, in its inclusion of 3G connectivity rather than GPRS (general packet radio service).

Palm’s Treo 500v can also be bought in an ‘ice white’ colour, with Palm stating further colour variants for future handsets were a distinct possibility. Palm has already introduced alternative colour Treos in its quad-band business smartphone range.

Palm Treo 500v

Palm Treo 500v

Introducing the Treo 500v, Palm senior vice-president John Hartnett said the smartphone market is at an “an inflection point”. Hartnett used this term to describe the combination of a growing demand for mobile messaging and web access with the speed of internet access devices and the ability of manufacturers to hit a sweet spot on price that makes such handsets now appeal to consumers.

Hartnett says instant messaging, SMS, MMS and the ability to keep in touch with friends via social network sites such as MySpace and Facebook were becoming more and more important to the younger generation of phone users. This younger demographic – split roughly equally between male and female – not only wants to be able to take a photo on their handset, they also “want to post it direct to their MySpace page”, he believes.

Vodafone’s live! Internet browsing interface is integral to the new Treo, enabling TV streaming and music downloads, but will not be the “walled garden” is has acted as on previous handsets, said Vodafone’s Jens Schulte-Bochum. The Treo 500v will use TPP (Vodafone’s Terminal Platform Program) and the mobile operator has worked closely with Microsoft to ensure the handset is a Windows Mobile device with a consumer focus and not so PC-centric.

Hartnett also said there’s a growing interest in being able to access webmail and work email among mobile phone owners. Vodafone, Microsoft and Palm spokesmen at the Treo 500v’s launch event were at pains to point out that while each of them may be business phone users during the day, they are consumers outside work hours – a combination they believe most of us will recognise.

Palm stopped short of adding touchscreen capabilities to the Treo 500v, sticking instead to the Standard version of Windows Mobile 6 both for costs’ sake and because the parties designing it believe the central navipad will suit the level of users it’s aimed at. “Not everyone wants to spend $500 or $600 on a smartphone”, explained Hartnett, when asked why it hadn’t taken the seemingly obvious route and added touch-sensitivity to a device launching around the same time as Apple’s much-hyped iPhone.

While the Treo has 3G, costs have also be kept low by using UMTS rather than HSDPA (high-speed data packet access) with its maximum connection rate of 3.6Mbps. Schulte-Bochum acknowledged this as one of the deliberate cut-off points in order to launch the Treo 500v at a certain price.

Instead, users can expect one-handed navigation, access to Google Maps and eBay accounts, webmail as well as Outlook and other Windows Mobile applications including a media player, a 2Mp camera, Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity. Vodafone will launch the Palm Treo 500v in the UK in October. It will also launch in Ireland, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, though it only looks to be available free on contract in the UK. In Germany, users will pay 30 euros and in Italy it will cost 149 euros.

According to Hartnett, Windows Mobile devices, which in their WM6 iteration come with Wi-Fi as standard, sold more than a million units in the UK in the last financial year, representing a 44 percent year-on-year growth, double that of rival RIM with its BlackBerry handsets.