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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  • Noriaki - Thursday, February 3, 2011 - link

    It's nice to have the flexibility of Flash I suppose, but I have little use for it in practice and I usually don't have it installed on my Nexus One. I mostly find it to be a waste of battery.

    On the nexus one it's a market place app I can install/remove as I like. Is there some way to control/disable Flash support in webOS2 ?
  • mythun.chandra - Thursday, February 3, 2011 - link

    You can enable/disable Flash support in the browser. Also, even if Flash support is enabled, you can toggle whether or not to load Flash content automatically on a page.
  • Noriaki - Thursday, February 3, 2011 - link

    Oh toggle to load automatically, I like that!

    Thanks for the info. I'm pretty interested to see what comes of webOS2.
  • tekeffect - Thursday, February 3, 2011 - link

    I got the pre the day it came out. I liked the OS then but the build quality of that phone was shit. I will never understand how they put that much effort into making a OS and put it on the shittiest plastic/hardware they could find. I'm with Android now with no intention of leaving. I wonder how many people would be willing to go to Web OS after so much time.
  • JHBoricua - Thursday, February 3, 2011 - link

    I would, in an instant. But, only as long as the applications are there. That's the only reason I have an Optimus LG now, I got tired of HP dragging their behind and the lack of usable applications on the Pre. The application ecosystem on Webos is pathetic at this time. I couldn't care if coming February 9 HP shows some awesome hardware, if they won't have the apps behind the platform it will be the Pre all over again.

    I like WebOS. IMHO it beats Android and IOS hands down in terms of usability and the user interface experience is absolutely great, but what is the point if the apps are not there?
  • DigitalFreak - Thursday, February 3, 2011 - link

    Exactly. It's a catch 22 really. Without the apps, people won't buy the phone. Without people buying the phone, developers won't create apps.

    While WebOS 2.0 may be technically better than Android, iOS, etc., having only one or two phones just isn't going to cut it.
  • retrospooty - Sunday, February 6, 2011 - link

    "I will never understand how they put that much effort into making a OS and put it on the shittiest plastic/hardware they could find"

    I worked for Palm for 5 years from 02 to 07. They are never able to fire on all pistons at the same time to get anything meaningful done... Alot of good people there, but the management on the hardware/engineering side is useless.

    My favorite quote from a Palm employee? "I have never seen so many smart people that truly care and are trying hard, go into a meeting together and come up with such stupid solutions"
  • firechiefsta - Monday, February 7, 2011 - link

    That's the most perfect comment I have ever read about Palm. You nailed it right on, 100%. Great work.

    I've loved palm since the Vx days, but these last few years have been painful, to say the least.

  • DigitalFreak - Thursday, February 3, 2011 - link

    "Build quality aside, the Pre/Pre Plus had the innards to, at the very least, keep up with the competition of its time and the OMAP 3630 in the Pre 2 is the very same found in the capable and well received Droid X."

    The Droid X will be a year old soon (if it's not already). HP should be releasing a Pre 2 with next gen hardware if they really want to capture any meaningful amount of market share. Being an also ran isn't going to work.
  • mythun.chandra - Thursday, February 3, 2011 - link

    I get that the 3630 isn't exactly the "in" thing...quite far from it. But I honestly feel that the the pace at which mobile CPU's are jumping forward every couple of months in terms of performance, soon we will be reaching a plateau in terms of how much CPU power we really need in a 3.5-4" device. Look at the desktop/notebook sector...apart from the Atom's, when was the last time you really felt the CPU was slowing you down?

    IMHO, the hardware needs to complement and be able to support the software it's driving. Now whether this means using a slow, low-power CPU with a software stack that almost entirely depends on the GPU (a la Nokia N8), or have it balanced like in case of the Pre 2 and webOS 2.0. At the end of it, it is the experience of using the device that really counts, not whether the CPU underneath is running at 1 or 1.5Ghz.

    That being said, the upcoming HP/Palm tablets should also whet your appetite fo raw CPU power :)

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