Embattled smartphone maker Palm, Inc. has a date with destiny. On June 6, Sprint will start selling the Palm Pre smartphone, an overdue rival to Apple's iPhone, Research in Motion's BlackBerry Curve, and HTC Corp.'s G1 Android.

Palm, once the leader in the now-quaint category called Personal Digital Assistants, and lately an also-ran in phones, is banking on the Pre to reclaim its former glory.

The phone will retail for $299, with a $100 mail-in rebate for buyers who ink a two-year contract with Sprint to use that company's high-speed Now Network, Palm said today on its blog. The net cost puts the Pre on par with the iPhone, which can be had for $199, after debuting two years ago at an eye-popping $599.

The Pre has won mostly positive reviews, including this one from CNET, though it's clearly a rookie. The phone features a 3.1-inch display (compared with the iPhone 3G's 3.5-inch display), has a capacity of eight gigabytes for storage (the iPhone can handle up to 16 gigabytes, but that much costs extra), CNET reported in April.

Software is a bigger challenge than hardware for Palm. The Pre is starting virtually from scratch when it comes to applications. Apple claims to have more than 35,000 iPhone apps, ranging programs to help stutterers to those that simulate the sound of flatulence. Apple may also thwart Palm by announcing a new, cheaper iPhone as early as June 8, Reuters reports.

Some say that Palm's decision to limit the Pre to Sprint's network (as Apple has done with AT&T and HTC Corp. did with T-Mobile) could likewise limit its appeal. "It's hard to imagine that anyone would actually switch over to Sprint just to get a Palm Pre," NPR's Laura Sydell wrote last week on the All Tech Considered blog.

Palm needs a Pre hit. The company's business is sagging, with sales of its Treo, Centro and other smartphones down 42 percent to 482,000 units in the most recent quarter, compared with the same quarter last year. The company that introduced "PDA" into the popular vernacular has a lot of ground to cover if it wants to reclaim the view from the top.

Image © Palm, Inc.