Now that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is fumbling its way to another runaway hit with the iPhone, smartphone vendors are struggling to respond. Palm (NASDAQ:PALM) took its shot last week with a $99 (after rebate) smartphone dubbed Centro.

But I think it should really be called Treo Lite.

Nothing to see here
Here's a partial feature list for Centro, as described by Palm in its brochure for the device:

  • Text messaging with a chat-style view.
  • AIM, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo! Messenger.
  • Stores names, numbers, appointments, notes, to-do's.
  • Wireless email for accounts like Gmail, AOL Mail, and Yahoo! Mail.
  • Visit YouTube and Yelp, MySpace, and more.
  • Broadband-like speeds for quick web searches.
  • Google Maps for directions and traffic.
  • 1.3 megapixel digital camera with video capture.
  • Works with Microsoft Office docs and PDF files.
  • Microsoft Direct Push technology for delivery of Outlook email as it arrives.

Um, haven't we seen all this before? Yep. From Palm, Nokia (NYSE:NOK), Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM), and dozens of other buy-good-stuff-cheap Asian phone builders.

Do you feel the need for speed?
I'd be less worried if these features weren't built on the old Palm operating system, which CEO Ed Colligan likes so much that he canceled the ill-fated Foleo to free up resources for developing a new OS. Too cynical, you say? Perhaps.

Others aren't as skeptical when it comes to the Centro. Industry watcher Rob Enderle recently pointed out how it outdoes the iPhone in carrier-data delivery. "Browsing the Web with a 3G phone is much better than with a 2.5G phone," Enderle wrote in a recent TechNewsWorld column.

He's right. The iPhone issaddled with the slower EDGE data networks that dominate here in the U.S., rather than the 3G networks that rule in Europe. But, honestly, this may be the Centro's lone advantage over the iPhone. And with Wi-Fi present in more locations every day, it's not likely to be much of an advantage. (The Centro doesn't have a Wi-Fi antenna.)

How to turn a Silicon Valley legend into a horror movie
If it seems as though I'm being too hard on Palm, I am. I once admired this company, I still own its products, and it holds a special place in Silicon Valley lore. You'll have to forgive me if I think there's something creepy about a once-proud innovator catering to bargain-basement shoppers.

But it may actually be worse than that. Centro is strikingly like Foleo, in that it tries to be more than one thing. It's neither a better phone, a la Motorola's (NYSE:MOT) RAZR from two years ago, nor a better smartphone, a la the iPhone.

That may work in the fantasy world of Saturday Night Live. (It's a floor wax! No, it's a dessert topping!) But it often fails in the real, brutal world of product design. Don't believe me? Ask the folks who've had multiple bouts with the infamous "red ring of death" that plagues the video-game-console-cum-digital-hub known as Xbox 360.

We've seen this horror show before, Palm. And it still ends badly.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.