A Brief History of webOS

Mobile devices have been steadily improving in their form, utility, and usage models over the last two decades. The one area which has seen almost explosive development, especially in the latter half of the last decade, has been interface/interaction design. While the devices themselves have grown steadily more powerful and capable, all that power and capability is of little practical use if it cannot be reined in and presented to the end user in a useful and straightforward manner.

Companies have increasingly realized the role that the platform interface plays in conveying a consistent and smooth user experience and have invested massive resources towards achieving the same. In fact, if done correctly, the interface can actually cover up some not-so-obvious shortcomings in a platform.

Apple, always having a keen eye for the design aspects of its products, brought user interface design to the center stage with the introduction of the iPhone back in 2007. While it did fall short on multiple features, it demonstrated how a user-friendly and cohesive interface can go a long way in getting users to adopt a platform. Since then, various companies tried to beat Apple at its game and honestly, not a lot have even been able to match it. That was until CES 2009.

Seeing Palm, one of the pioneers in the PDA space, stagnate towards the end was sad. However, in the Linux-based webOS, Palm would find their much needed shot in the arm--or at least some of it. Purely as a mobile operating system, webOS bought a lot to the table on the usability front. While previous iterations of PalmOS, Symbian, and later Android/iOS supported multitasking, it was webOS that placed it at the very center of the mobile user experience. In fact, I honestly feel webOS has one of the most useful and user-friendly multitasking implementations currently available.

Other manufacturers have taken note of this and have slowly but steadily included webOS-inspired features in their respective platforms. It's not just the multitasking ability; the notifications, message, and contact management along with the browser are all top-notch in webOS. It is because of these reasons I have found it very difficult to let go of using the Pre Plus as my primary phone. In spite of the variety of smartphones available these days with vastly superior specifications, platform eco-systems, and perhaps most importantly build quality, reliance on webOS has made it very difficult for me to upgrade from my Pre. But that doesn’t mean webOS doesn’t have any flaws or room for further improvement.

webOS suffers from some performance issues. Also, with developer support becoming a major factor in deciding whether a platform lives or dies, Palm--in spite of openly embracing the homebrew community--hasn’t had a particularly strong showing there. It has taken its sweet time in setting up and opening some important APIs in the platform. Most importantly, battery life has been a major issue with devices running webOS. The solution to a lot of these problems is a combination of the right hardware matched up with software fixes and updates. We’ll have to wait until February 9 to see what HP/Palm plans on doing on the hardware front, but with webOS 2.0 we can get a glimpse of what they have in store on the software side of things.

Where Does webOS Stand Now?
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  • ssj4Gogeta - Thursday, February 03, 2011 - link

    I have an app called Searchify on my Android which some of the functionality of Just Type. It presents itself to the OS as a normal search plugin, but you do calculations, create calendar events, have keywords for different tasks, do unit conversions etc. by just typing in the Android search bar. This shows that this functionality is at least possible on Android already. Reply
  • adayse - Friday, February 04, 2011 - link

    Mithun seems a little confused about multitasking. Android multitasks as well as any flavour of linux so he is clearly not talking about that kind of multitasking. Multitasking for him seems to be what the UI does to help you multitask - like you get when you do windows + tab on your PC. Reply
  • theinvisibleduck - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    Until HoneyComb Android did not truely multitask. It isnt very evident because it is "close enough" Reply
  • strikeback03 - Friday, February 04, 2011 - link

    Is there really space for another platform where the same company is responsible for the hardware and the OS? One of the advantages Android and WP7 have is that they have multiple companies developing the hardware so there are lots of choices to get the features you want (screen size/keyboard/camera/etc) while running more or less the same OS. Apple obviously does fine with it, though at least in part because of their marketing, their integration with the rest of the Apple ecosystem, their app support, and the lead that came with having the first "modern" smartphone OS. Hard to imagine that HP is going to push out new hardware at a rate to compete with all the options running Android or WP7, so do they have any other tricks up their sleeve to draw new users? Hard to see that just being really easy to use and open to homebrew is going to go too far for them there.

    I like WebOS, and if the Pre hadn't been limited to Sprint in 2009 when I got my last phone I certainly would have chosen it over the POS HTC Diamond I got. Now that I am about to upgrade again they still haven't done enough to show that the platform has a long-term future, so I'll be going Android this time, maybe in another 20 months things will be looking better for WebOS.
    Reply
  • melgross - Friday, February 04, 2011 - link

    Honestly, except for a number of people here and there, who really cares about this anymore? I know that the tech writers care, and some geeks care, but who else? Those two groups can't keep a system in the money.

    What I found with WebOS when it first came out was that it was very confusing to use. Some things, such as swiping on the phone BELOW the screen to be impossible to figure out without being told first. I'm willing to bet that when people went into the Sprint store and picked up the Pre, they couldn't figure out how to work it, and so went on to something else. The day of 100+ page phone manuals are over.

    The improvements here are welcome, but as other writers have said, it's not nearly enough. I understand that with all of Palm's problems, they hadn't the funds to do much work on this, and after HP bought them, they were spending more time on integrating the company into HP. Maybe, at some point Ver. 3 will actually make some moves that matter. But will it be way too late? Even Hp's money may not be enough to help this.
    Reply
  • Targon - Friday, February 04, 2011 - link

    When the original Palm Pre came out, it showed up six months after the initial introduction. There WAS a good amount of excitement for the new Palm device at the announcement, but six months really hurt, and with poor marketing at launch, the chance to get the PUBLIC interested was gone. The initial build quality and it being Sprint exclusive through the end of 2009 hurt things as well.

    Then you had the Verizon launch of the Palm Pre Plus....and Verizon didn't even TRY selling it. Put a mid-sized phone(3.2 inch screen+slideout keyboard) in a case with the power off, and without sales people showing it to customers, it didn't sell well when the same sales people were pushing Android based devices.

    The AT&T launch was almost as bad, with no advertising, and no sales people with any clue about the phone or what WebOS could do. Note that the AT&T launch was on May 17th of 2010, before the iPhone 4 launch, so the processor speed and overall specs were very similar to the iPhone 3GS, with the Pre Plus being better due to 512MB of RAM.

    Palm just didn't advertise or hype the Pre Plus, which DID fix most build quality issues by the time the Verizon and AT&T versions were released. Without advertising or sales people trying to sell it, how do you expect that the phone would have generated the excitement needed to bring in developers?

    So, that was what came from the days of Palm. The Pre 2 is really a somewhat improved Palm Pre Plus...512MB of RAM, a glass screen instead of plastic, 1GHz processor....it really had the specs to compete with the iPhone 4 and other devices if you didn't care about the screen size. With the other advantages of WebOS, if it were sold back in October of 2010, with advertising and a sales push, it might have done well with WebOS 2 on it.

    Going forward, there are several new devices set to be announced on , with launch by the end of March. There have been rumors about WebOS 2.1, but the exact details are still unknown. As it stands, if HP releases new phones with a 3.7 inch screen that also have the slide-out keyboard(as well as virtual keyboard), that SHOULD be competitive enough to generate a good number of sales.

    Now, one feature of the HP/Palm devices that should not be overlooked is the Touchstone....which is an induction charger. No need to plug in a cable to charge it, or even to fit the phone onto a charging dock....smooth surface to smooth surface, and your phone charges up. When on the Touchstone, even from the original Palm Pre launch, the phone would show the time, as well as showing notifications. It is great on a desk where your phone now doubles as a clock, PLUS, when you answer the phone while on the Touchstone, it starts in speaker mode. If you take the phone off the Touchstone while on a call, it automatically switches from speakerphone to normal, and if you are on a call when you put it on the Touchstone, it switches to speakerphone mode automatically. It's a great feature.
    Reply
  • johnsonx - Saturday, February 05, 2011 - link

    agreed particularly about the touchstone. I can't imagine switching to a device with no touchstone... it would just be so *odd* and "low tech" to have to go back to plugging in my phone. I know there are inductive charging accessories available for some other devices, but I'm certain they don't work nearly as well (and at a minimum they require some sort of add-on skin and other fiddly bits). Reply
  • SanLouBlues - Friday, February 04, 2011 - link

    I know review units are nice, but you could have bought a GSM model off their website for a few months now. Anand can afford it. Reply
  • Targon - Saturday, February 05, 2011 - link

    If you think about it, the Pre 2 was really intended for developers since at this point, only one carrier in the entire world has offered it. If a phone ends up being ONLY for those who want to write apps(since the general public won't get one off contract), then that device is of fairly limited appeal.

    Now, WebOS 2 has been slated to go out to all the current WebOS devices, which is why this article about the OS is good. Talking about the Pre 2 itself when Verizon has been sitting on it for four months prior to release....I can understand why the site did not want to PAY for a device that may never end up being released by any of the cell phone companies here in the USA.

    Feb 9th isn't that far away now, and multiple new devices and announcements are due. It would be interesting to know if Anandtech has gotten some of the new hardware to review prior to the event so reviews can go up on the 9th or 10th.
    Reply
  • hpram99 - Saturday, February 05, 2011 - link

    What, no inclusion on how webOS handles Global Address List for Exchange? Definitely better than Android's implementation, and a very useful tool for most business folks. It's very slick, using just type you'll get an option at the bottom to search the GAL, there's no need to add any contacts to your list, or clutter up your phone with a complete sync of thousands of contacts. Reply

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