Why I’m excited about Palm’s webOS

I have been a Palm fan for a very long time. My first PDA was a PalmPilot Professional, which eventually led to the m100 (AA batteries!), my first Palm OS phone, Pia’s hand-me-down Tungsten W, the Treo 650 and finally, my last (real) phone: the Treo 680. I’m even vaguely sad that I missed the final outing of Palm OS on the Centro.

I was disappointed when Palm split into two companies, but perhaps it was ultimately a good thing… PalmSource became victim to an almighty corporate Sarlacc, to be digested slowly over a thousand years, while Palm became nimble and determined to win out of necessity.

The ill-fated Foleo was a public relations disaster, but in retrospect, a concept way ahead of its time — consider the explosion of the netbook market soon after, and where the iPad is today (albeit generations of mobile technology beyond the capabilities of the Foleo).

Which brings us to webOS, released a year ago today on the Palm Pre. Having waited impatiently all that time (often running to the emulator to get my fix), I finally acquired one last week.

It is a truly delicious user experience. I won’t go into too much detail on this front — as with most things, you must use it — suffice to say that it carries the soul of Palm OS in a 21st century vessel.

(Okay, one thing on this: When it comes to the basic functions of a smart phone — calls, and contacts — I’m convinced this thing has both the iPhone and HTC’s Sense UI for the Desire beat. Synergy is seamless and awesome.)

Despite it’s youth, webOS is an incredibly promising and fast-moving platform… and in stark contrast to other “mobile Linux” competitors, it’s not just a bunch of goofy shit piled on top of a heavily molested Linux kernel: What runs on your phone is an utterly recognisable Open Source stack and an utterly recognisable web stack. Sure, there’s a layer of proprietary Java gumpf shoved between the good bits, but even that is getting thinner.

To some extent, webOS is the GNOME Mobile platform with a user interface and services layer built for the web generation. It’s D-Bus, GStreamer and PulseAudio under WebKit. Mojo applications, written in JavaScript, talk to services via JSON APIs, and native apps integrate into the web-based user interface via — get this! — NPAPI plugins.

Crucially, webOS will grow and improve along with the web. Everything you’re seeing in the web world — faster JavaScript, hardware accelerated CSS animation, massive growth of the JavaScript ecosystem (consider all the frameworks, CommonJS modules, nodejs event-based server, etc.) and all the incredible new APIs popping up — will find a place in webOS. Check out the Palm Developer Day keynote and podcast from Dion Almaer and Ben Galbraith for more on the near future of webOS.

On the awesomeness of Dion and Ben at Palm? I’ll just quote James Governor:

Palm tried to use Apple’s trick of secrecy first rather than investing heavily in developer good will and playing the open card. It didn’t work. Palm realised its error last year and did something incredibly smart – it hired Dion Almaer and Ben Galbraith to develop a new, web-savvy, strategy around its platform.

Using open technology as the bricks and mortar of a platform is not particularly amazing of course. Everyone’s doing it. But Palm are making friends and influencing developers by having an impressively open attitude to devices, too. Your store-bought phone — with a bit of Konami code action and the freely downloadable webOS SDK — is already “rooted” for you. Just log in. ps afx? cat /proc/cpuinfo? top? Your “first command” habit is most likely catered for. 🙂

That openness has encouraged an incredible amount of community activity. The most Open Source savvy group dedicated to the platform is WebOS Internals. Initially, they published all sorts of juicy information about the innards of webOS and the Pre… but have now rallied around distribution of “home brew” Open Source patches and apps, using their own package management interface, Preware. They’ve even published an updated kernel which supports overclocking, temperature sensors and more advanced power management than the original! It’s wonderful stuff.

Then HP bought Palm.

Despite some messaging hiccoughs (now resolved), this is an incredibly exciting move for Palm and webOS fans. I’m hoping it gives Palm the reach, resources and relationships to go global, accelerate improvement of the platform, and ship some terrific new hardware to make their software shine… that said, it better not be an almighty corporate Sarlacc!

Damn it feels good to be a Palmster.

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