As Palm moves toward launch, Pre fans speculate frantically

Geeks have a reputation for happily queueing up to buy new things that show their tribal allegiances -- game consoles, Star Trek tickets, and much of Apple's product line. (I'm sure somewhere in this wide world there was a guy sitting on line three days for the Mac mini.) But with no new consoles on the horizon, Apple suspiciously quiet about their WWDC plans, and your reporter refusing to acknowledge the existence of the new Terminator movie, Pre's the fun to be had at the moment. A cluster of rumors, announcements, and tea-leaf prognostications -- along with one Sprint announcement -- are making the rounds as the end of the quarter draws nearer.

Much of the speculation currently revolves around the single solid fact currently known: Sprint's running a win-a-Pre contest. Signups for that sweepstakes conclude Monday night at 11:59 pm CDT, and the drawing will be held one week later, on May 26.

That's what we know. (We do not know what the contest page means by "this fully live phone," but that's either some poorly phrased marketing-speak or a hint that the handset is a functioning organic entity, in which case all bets are off.) The rumor mill is however ready to run with much less than that. A sample of the scuttlebutt, with our ratings as to plausibility [Edited May 19 to add: and their accuracy so far]:

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1) The Wall Street Journal's going to have a big announcement concerning the Pre on May 19, possibly including price and availability date. If any mainstream tech writer has his hands on the Pre already, we'd bet on the WSJ's Walt Mossberg. Boy Genius originated this rumor; his track record's mixed, but frankly an early review or a big price/date reveal in the WSJ would be a high-profile publicity coup for both Sprint and Palm, which as we know from reading earnings reports wouldn't be a bad thing. Plausibility rating: 4 TouchStones inductive chargers (out of five) [ETA: The Journal had the article, written by Roger Cheng; no word yet on whether Walt's got one.].

2) Best Buy will "trial launch" the Pre on June 7. Various sites are claiming that the big-box store will get a limited number of handsets and TouchStones in for a June 7 sale date. Meanwhile, Engadget's saying that the TouchStone charger has an in-stock date of June 7 in Best Buy's computers. But Sunday is historically Sprint's launch date, which causes us to give this 2 TouchStones (since we can't feature the company stores rolling out this particular handset on the same schedule as a third-party reseller, no matter how large), though it makes sense if...

3) June 5 is the internal-launch day. Boy Genius (him again!) claims to have lain hands on a memo that claims a three-day event in the works at Palm from June 3-5, with training on the first two days and a "LAUNCH LUNCH!" on the fifth. We're of two minds about the memo itself; the schedule looks reasonably corporate, but a glaring typo makes us suspicious. 2.5 TouchStones [ETA: The on-sale date is June 6 -- a day earlier than the previous rumor, but in line with the internal memo, typo and all.].

4) The handset will cost around $550. A commenter at PreCentral ran the numbers on the estimated retail value mentioned in the Sprint contest material and came up with $542 for just the handset -- no TouchStone. That could well be the rate for a contract-free unlocked phone, but rebates and subsidies would kick in for most users, bringing the price down by half or more if the usual Sprint smartphone customs hold. We'll sign, clutch our tiny wallets, and give this one 3 TouchStones [ETA: $200 with a two-year contract, $100 rebate and such] (expected to retail at around $70, it's predicted [ETA: Sort of -- the TouchStone plus the required Pre jacket is $70, but once you have that you can get just an extra TouchStone for $50] or just a jacket for $20), since it meshes well with...

5) The handset costs Palm $138 to build. BusinessWeek noted a report from iSuppli that estimates Palm's build cost at $138 per handset, basing their numbers on two solid data points (the TI and Qualcomm chips known to be inside). That's a bit less expensive than similar smartphones, by the way, but not radically so -- especially since the provenance of the other components isn't yet known. 3 TouchStones.

6) The initial manufacturing run has been capped at just 375,000. PalmPreBlog points to a Bloomberg report in which analysts said that (is this telephone-game chain long enough for you yet?) Palm will have fewer than 400,000 units in stock, the better to "enhance its customer allure," a la the iPhone or the Wii. Not that sales estimation isn't a black art, but this one seems shifty, and not only because of the estimated manufacturing costs above. Frankly, this ain't the Wii; there are other phones, even other buzzworthy phones. True, selling out the phone's initial run would be a buzzworthy sign of success, but unless Sprint is ready to restock within weeks if not days, that buzz gets lost in the next big Android/iPhone/Zune announcement -- and the once-eager, now-annoyed crowds surge elsewhere. We'll give this 1 TouchStone [ETA: Dan Hesse on May 19 said there'll be "shortages for a while" but did not further explain] and express our fervent hope that the stockpile, if not the first-day in-store availability, really does meet the market demand quickly. We don't see a second chance for either Sprint or Palm to get that right, and even a gadget geek can only wait on line and gossip for so long.

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