By Michael Fisher | May 23, 2012 5:08 PM
We’ve recently run a series of articles discussing the awesome features of certain mobile platforms, and how those highlights drive users to love them. We’ve covered Windows Phone, iOS, and Android, the platforms with the best combination of mindshare and potential, and today I thought I’d give a shoutout to a lesser-known (but immensely influential) player in the mobile space: webOS.
If the details are hazy with the passage of time, here’s a brief refresher. webOS was Palm’s replacement for its legacy PalmOS, the platform that helped launch the smartphone and PDA revolution via the Palm Pilot and Treo. webOS was an entirely new platform, written in web languages like HTML5 and CSS, and though it was based on the Linux kernel like Android, its version was separate and distinct.
webOS debuted in the summer of 2009 as the platform behind the Pre, the first of a family of devices that Palm bet its future on. I have fond memories of waking up early and making my way to Boston’s Boylston Street Sprint store, where a line had already begun to form outside. As Palm’s exclusive launch partner for the Pre, Sprint was doing its best to manage the crowd and keep us entertained. The employees could barely contain their own excitement about taking part in the kind of high-profile product launch usually reserved for Apple products. They walked up and down the line, activated Palm Pres clutched firmly in their hands, letting us look but only allowing the briefest of touches and swipes, lest someone get too firm a grip and run down the street, stolen Pre in hand.
The energy was electric, the anticipation palpable; nearly six months had passed since the first version of webOS -and the first Palm Pre- were shown off, and many of us standing in line had spent that half-year following all things Palm with rapt attention. Remember, this was before Android had gotten any traction, and after the decline of Blackberry and Windows Mobile had begun. Symbian was never big here in the States, so anyone looking for an iOS alternative was very excited about Palm’s new offering.
What followed was a two year roller-coaster of some tremendous highs and quite a few more earth-shattering lows, culminating in what can only be called a total implosion of webOS. That’s been reported on ad nauseam here and elsewhere, and even if I wanted to go into it in this piece, I don’t think I could. Even the brief bit of research it took to unearth the photo above has put me in mind of those bright days, and the spectre of webOS’ demise still stings too much to dwell on for long.
Instead, let’s take a gander at some of the breakthrough features Palm introduced with webOS- features that would change the entire mobile landscape, first on Palm smartphones, and then on others as competitors poached the underlying ideas.
Palm’s “Synergy” concept laid the groundwork for much of the convenience in contact management that smartphone users of today take for granted. At one time, there were almost as many separate contact lists on mobile devices as there were applications. AIM, Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger – all had their own “buddy list,” separate and distinct from the device’s primary phonebook.
Then there was the added challenge of multiple contact points per person, which anyone who’s ever created contacts like “Dad Cell,” “Dad Home,” “Dad Office,” etc., can instantly recognize. By the time the average person got done inputting home, office, and cell numbers, home and work email addresses, IM screennames, and social networking handles, some contacts ended up with nine or ten separate phone book entries per person.
Mobile platforms had already taken great steps to minimize this confusion, of course, with Windows Mobile and Blackberry offering excellent, robust contact management with unified-entry support. But at the time, neither of those platforms was able to crawl through your social networking, IM, and email accounts to find your contacts, bring them to your phone, and link them together based on name. webOS was, and though it made the initial sync take forever, it was an incredible time-saver thereafter.
The upshot to Synergy: buying a webOS phone and populating it with your contacts was as simple as plugging in your email and social-networking user names, and letting Palm do the leg work from there on. In addition to contacts, profile photos were imported, so even photo caller ID was taken care of for you. When a friend changed his or her profile picture on Facebook, Synergy made sure it changed on the phone, too.
Lucky for you, all of this functionality has since been absorbed into other platforms. Instead of being magical and new, it’s now de rigueur. So the next time you buy a new Android or WP7 device and it magically rounds up all your contacts after you plug in a few passwords, take a moment to thank Palm: they’re the ones who blazed the trail for the others to follow.
When webOS was new to the scene, the big buzzword of the day was “multitasking.” webOS’ predecessor, PalmOS, hadn’t offered that functionality. More importantly, the iPhone OS of the day didn’t offer third-party app multitasking, either, and Palm decided to sieze on that as a key differentiator.
Not only did webOS provide multitasking support; it offered a better implementation than anyone else had. The term “task switcher” was already something of a dirty word, implying a janky, half-functional app-jump springboard. Palm took the opportunity to do something different, and made the task switcher the core UI element, the center of the webOS experience.
To open an application in webOS, a user tapped on its icon in the launcher or the “dock,” much like any other OS. The app launched into full-screen mode, exposing all of its functionality; again, the experience here was very similar to every other platform.
The difference became apparent when a user wanted to jump to another application. Rather than sending the open app into an invisible netherworld, webOS simply minimized it to its card view. Other apps could then be opened in their own separate cards, and the user could quickly and easily jump between those open apps with a set of intuitive, efficient gestures. This gesture-based operation placed emphasis on swipes over taps, which made using a webOS device feel more like playing a musical instrument than interacting with a computer. Even the simple act of closing an app was more satisfying in webOS, with the user tossing the card off the top of the screen, the app disappearing with a subtle whoosh.
Today, the “cards” paradigm can be seen at work in any number of platforms, most notably in RIM’s QNX-based operating system for the Blackberry PlayBook (which, incidentally, borrows most of its look and feel from webOS), and both skinned and stock versions of Android ICS. Windows Phone 7 also uses a similar setup for its multitasking view.
With the exception of Blackberry’s offering, though, none of these offer quite the same utility. webOS’s cards were windows into the apps as they existed in realtime; because of the multitasking-centric nature of the platform, all of the apps were actually running in the background, and their minimized card versions reflected that, changing orientation when the device did, continuing their animations, and so on. While this wasn’t great news for battery life or memory management, it was at least a WYSIWIG environment.
By contrast, because of the way more modern OSes are structured, with heavy emphasis on quelling background operations in order to save power and optimize memory allocation, the “cards” seen in their multitasking screens are usually just static screenshots of the apps’ last-seen state. This implementation renders the card view little more than window dressing, with only a shadow of the functionality webOS offered.
The grumbling over iOS’ intrusive notifications hadn’t yet grown into a full-throated roar by the time webOS launched, but it was certainly getting harder to ignore. At the time, the iPhone interrupted any existing app or process with a giant blue bubble-window for every inbound text message, IM, or similar notification. This pop-up dialog box required a user to take action to clear it before being allowed to return to what he or she was doing.
Other platforms weren’t quite so intrusive with their notifications; the then-nascent Android OS was -and still is- highly praised for its “notification drawer,” and both Blackberry and Windows Mobile took their own, less-irritating approaches to informing the user of a waiting summons.
The beauty of webOS notifications closely paralleled what Android offered: inbound messages were displayed on a small portion of the screen, where a preview of the message content was flashed briefly to allow the user to see whether it was of critical importance. As more message types piled up, different icons were displayed in a row; when tapped, these icons expanded into larger preview banners, which could then be swiped away or tapped to launch the associated application. During all this, the rest of the screen was scaling its resolution, displaying as much of the active application as it could. Best of all: this notification array was positioned at the bottom of the screen within easy reach of thumbs, instead of at the top of the display, which makes no sense.
Just this week, I posted a piece wondering why, with all the feature-poaching of webOS by its former rivals, Just Type hasn’t been stolen in its entirety yet.
What competitors have managed to implement in their platforms is the 1.0-version of Just Type, called Universal Search- in some cases, even the name has survived the jump across OSes. This feature allows a user to type in a word, such as “Amazon,” which will cue the device to search several areas at once: any apps matching the search string, like “Amazon Kindle,” will be displayed, as will any contacts in the address book, like “Linda the Amazon-Woman.” Other actions are presented as well, like the option to search Google or Wikipedia for the entered term.
Just Type launched with webOS version 2.0 and took the thinking a step further, allowing users not only to search, but to generate content like texts and status updates without even entering the requisite applications. My full report on why Just Type is the best webOS feature no one’s stolen yet is at the link above, and I encourage you to check it out for an in-depth discussion of how awesome it is to tweet without Twitter.
The Betamax Of Its Day
I could go on and on. webOS offered so much that was new and fresh for its time, which is why it captured the attention and imagination of so many of us in the technology sector. And since the nature of that sector is to keep the view trained ever-forward, it’s easy to forget that so many of the features we now take for granted originated with companies and products that have since fallen by the wayside. webOS has continued as a relevant body in the mobile space for so long, not just because of its calamitous, headline-worthy fall from grace, but because so much of its revolutionary roots fuel the most popular mobile devices of today. We can expect to see more features from webOS trickle down to other platforms as it continues down the road to open-source, but I’ll always look back fondly on the days when all those features were new, exciting, and offered under the Palm banner.
Sprint Store Pre Launch Image Source: Engadget
webOS Notification image source: SlashGear