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Is Palm (Nasdaq: PALM ) copying the iPhone? No one's saying so explicitly, but Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) COO and Steve Jobs stand-in Tim Cook came pretty close during yesterday's earnings conference call.
"We will not stand for having our [intellectual property] ripped off," Cook said in response to a question about competition from touchscreen smartphones such as Research In Motion's (Nasdaq: RIMM ) BlackBerry Storm and the well-received Pre.
There's no telling exactly what's behind Cook's answer, but to me, the Pre's gesture-driven features make it feel like the iPhone's cousin. Which makes sense; Palm's executive chairman, Jon Rubinstein, is a former Apple employee, as are several other members of the Pre's development team.
Cook never singled out Palm. Instead, he talked of how Apple is handily beating peers:
We still believe that we're years ahead of the competition from a software point of view. And when you throw in the Applications Store with the statistics that [CFO] Peter [Oppenheimer] pointed [to] earlier with over 15,000 apps and over half a billion downloads in a very, very short period of time, we feel very, very good about our competitive position.
I suppose that's fair. Apple has, in fact, gained huge momentum with the App Store. But the store isn't just for the iPhone. We know from research and yesterday's report that the iPod Touch is a growing destination for software downloads.
And while Nokia (NYSE: NOK ) suffered from slower handset sales in the fourth quarter, Apple didn't exactly impress Wall Street with 4.4 million iPhones sold during the holiday quarter. That's understandable. Not only was the figure less than what analysts projected -- 5 million to 7 million -- but also 2.5 million less than Apple sold in the prior quarter.
Opinions vary as to whether the Pre is an iPhone clone. I'm not convinced; I think the Pre's card-deck navigation is unique and ahead of what the iPhone offers now. Nor am I convinced that Apple is "years ahead" in applications. Thousands of applications exist for other platforms, including Palm's original OS and Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Windows Mobile.
Plus, software development is a different art now, thanks to open source and the Web -- prototyping happens in days, rather than weeks. These tools are available to every smartphone vendor.
The iPhone has proven itself a brilliant platform, Mr. Cook. But it isn't the only one. That's why smart investors are giving Palm a second look.
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