Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein on the Pre, the Pixi, and Apple's sense of taste

Jon Rubinstein, CEO of resurgent smartphone-maker Palm (PALM), didn't want to talk about the iPhone when I caught up with him after an Engadget event in New York City on Sunday. "I don't focus on the competition," he told me.

But he was more than happy to talk about the biggest lesson he learned while working for Steve Jobs at Apple, where he led the division that invented the iPod -- a product so transformative that an early version is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. "I learned a sense of taste at Apple," Rubinstein, 53, says. "I learned how to make products for consumers rather than engineers."
A year ago, Palm didn't seem poised for the comeback it's now making. Palm's investors, including Elevation Partners, hope Rubinstein's sense of taste will translate into sales as Palm approaches its Thursday earnings report. Palm's Pre device was met with critical applause this year, and its forthcoming Pixi phone represents another evolutionary leap beyond Palm's once-advanced Treo technology.

Pixi, a slimmed-down Pre with a fixed keyboard, is aimed at teens; it should be in stores for the holidays at a highly competitive pricepoint: under $100, DailyFinance has learned, although the company remains mum on this issue. Verizon Wireless plans to announce service for the Palm Pre, and possibly other Palm phones, in January. The new deals and devices mark nothing short of an impressive second act for the once-beleaguered tech pioneer.

"Rubinstein, the former Apple executive installed to save Palm, has his hands full," I wrote in January 2008. "Palm, the former high-flying smartphone maker, is in dire straits. In 2008, the company faces three outcomes, none of them inspiring: bankruptcy, sale, or mere survival." Well, the company survived, and is now in the midst of nothing short of a revival.

Rubinstein acknowledges that Palm has seen a sustained rough patch. "The original Palm was all about innovation, but something happened," Rubinstein says. "The company lost its way. Our goal is to maintain that original spirit of innovation that is in the company's DNA. The most important thing now is execution." Rubin repeats the word "execution" several times for emphasis.

The stock market has noticed: Palm shares have now recovered from the swoon caused by their subpar products and seeming lack of direction, and are now trading at levels last seen in mid-2007. This year alone, Palm's share price has roughly tripled, and is now dancing around the $14 mark.

The Palm renaissance began in earnest with the release of the Pre, a slick touchscreen device with a hidden keyboard that DailyFinance's Anthony Massuci regards as being "in the same league as the iPhone." The Pre marked such a departure from Palm's disparaged Treo line that it seemed to have been manufactured by a different company.

But it's not just the hardware that Palm has improved. Palm's new operating system, dubbed Web OS, is a beautiful multitasking platform that rivals the iPhone's interface.

Rubinstein, a New York native, acknowledges that just because Palm is showing encouraging signs of a comeback, this won't be a cakewalk. "Making new products is hard," he told me. "We're up against a lot of tough competition. But we will be in the top five players in this space."

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