HP webOS: a (not-so) brief history, Part 1
This past weekend, AT&T and HP released their newestphone, the HP Veer, which can safely be described as the smallest,fully-functional smartphone on the market. Running HP’s webOS 2.1.2, the Veeris shorter than a credit card, contains a full slide-out QWERTY keyboard, and isjust as capable a device as its larger older brother the Pre2. But before we takea look at what this tiny new phone can do, let’s go on a little journey to understandwhat webOS is all about and how it came to be.
Part 1 – The birth of webOS
In the early and middle part of the last decade, the termsmartphone was practically synonymous with Palm and their Treo (then later the Centro)line of phones which were built with the same underlying PalmOS that made thePalm Pilot a household name. Blackberry was still just a messenging device,Apple had yet to venture into the smartphone market, and Google was just asearch engine. However, PalmOS was slowly becoming an outdated operating systemwhile serious competitors started to emerge in the smartphone space. In 2007, aroundthe same time that the first iPhone was released by Apple, the team at Palmbrought onboard Jon Rubinstein, a former Apple Exec who is generally regarded asthe “Father” of the iPod. It was decided that they needed to take abrand new approach to their smartphone OS. Instead of iterating on theircurrent operating system, they started from scratch and went back to theproverbial drawing board. For almost 2 years, all that came out from Palm wasan expansion of their Centro line and a Windows Mobile based Treo Pro.
In January of 2009 at the Consumer Electronics Show, Palmmade a huge splash. Nobody knew what to expect when Palm announced that theywill be presenting at CES, but whatever expectations anyone had, Palm’spresentation far exceeded them. Palm showed off their new operating systemcalled webOS and the first phone that would be running it, the Palm Pre. WhilewebOS and the Pre may have looked like some existing phones in the market atfirst glance, it was clear that the team at Palm thought long and hard at howto make the best user experience in the mobile space. For example, while thePre and the iPhone have some similarities with a large touchscreen with asingle hardware button, the Pre also brought with it Palm’s signature hardwarekeyboard. And a revolutionary new gesture area allowed you to perform a largevariety of gestures to navigate around the OS, such as moving back in an app orthe web browser, minimizing an app, or bringing up the app launcher.
There are a large number of other features that were uniqueto webOS back in 2009, from its Synergy service to consolidate your contacts,calendars and IM services from multiple online accounts (Yahoo, Google,LinkedIn, etc) to its notification dashboard that provided for an unobtrusivenotifications system. Instead of the act on-or-dismiss nature of iOSnotifications, a user could see the notification and decide to act on it or saveit for later. Developers are even able to build in functionality in their appsto take advantage of that dashboard, such as having a live stock ticker ormusic controls that could be shown or quickly minimized to a small dashboardicon. But perhaps most intriguing was the capability of true multitasking inwebOS that was easy and intuitive for the user. There was no need to hold downor double-tap any buttons to see your most recent apps, you just needed to givea quick swipe up from the gesture area and all your running apps were displayedfor you to see, each as its own “card” on the screen. A flick to theright or left allowed you to see what was open, and you were just a tap orflick away from opening or closing an app. The list of new and unique featuresof webOS goes on, and there are plenty of resources around the web, such as PreCentral.net or Engadget.com if you want to read up on all the specifics ofwebOS.
Palm wowed the audience at CES as well as Tech writerseverywhere, even picking up the Best in Show award, but it failed to gainingsignificant marketshare in the smartphone space. First, Palm announced thedevice almost 6 months prior to launch. Once released, an exclusive launch withSprint was highly successful out the gate, but hardware troubles, poormarketing, and an app catalog still in beta (without paid apps) slowed it’sadoption. A few months later, Verizon launched their Droid campaign, showcasingthe Droid running Android 2.0. Palm then released their Pixi smartphone onSprint, a candybar style phone that they hoped would be a natural successor totheir low-end Centro. The Pixi wasn’t as successful as Sprint and Palmhad hoped–most likely because it was underpowered compared to the Pre andlacking Wi-Fi–but webOS was still gaining a loyal fan base as it closed out 2009.
And despite it low adoption rate, webOS was still critically hailed as one of the best mobileoperating systems available and Palm wasnot about to just give up that easily. While Android was quickly gainingmarketshare, there was still a lot of room in the increasingly growingsmartphone market and webOS had already gained a the community of loyal andvocal webOS users. Once again, Palm announced that they would be presenting atCES in January 2010 and everyone wondered how they were going to top theirpresentation from the prior year. Stay tuned for Part 2 of “HP webOS: a(not-so) brief history” as we examine Palm’s next attempts to regaincontrol of the smartphone market they once reigned over and their ultimate sale to Hewlett-Packard.
Adam Marks is a writer for PreCentral.net, a SmartphoneExperts website dedicated to all things webOS