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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29 Responses to Why I’m excited about Palm’s webOS

  1. Rob Sharp says:

    Hey Jeff,

    Those handsets look pretty interesting. Any tips for getting one in Au? Usual suspects don’t seem to stock them.

    • Jeff Waugh says:

      Palm haven’t shipped any of their webOS phones in Australia yet — being a little scrapper again meant they had to focus on North America and Europe. I suspect fixing this will be one of the earlier outcomes of the HP acquisition. 🙂

      I bought mine (an unlocked UK handset) from a private seller in Thailand. Fingersnaps for Ebay!

  2. Dylan McCall says:

    That’s exactly what I love about WebOS, too. It is a proper showcase of what this platform can do with a good group of designers, a clean slate and a willingness to fill in the gaps 🙂

    Whenever someone complains about PulseAudio, or Upstart, or GStreamer I point at WebOS and all the normal people who seem oblivious to its open source underpinnings, and whoever I was arguing with vanishes in shame. (If only it used Telepathy. Then I could win _any_ argument!)

    Now, someone should do that with the desktop. See what happens when you say “enough with the legacy cruft!” and start fresh?

    Android may be open source, but my heart lies with WebOS first. It brings a sense of clarity and readiness to the platform as a whole; something Android — with its special custom stack — just can’t do.

    Palm just needs to give me a phone as nice as the Nexus One or the Droid, and I will be a happy camper.

    • Dextro says:

      Don’t forget Maemo (now MeeGo), people who have a N900 are always saying how much they love the integrated contacts and the seemless handling of the best way to message someone (skype calls, xmpp, etc…) and all that’s powered by Telepathy…

      Now if only Maemo had made babies with WebOS instead of Moblin… 😛

  3. twilightomni says:

    I think your enthusiasm is pretty awesome, but…isn’t it a little bit late?

    I love my Palm, and really like Web OS, but if your excitement is demonstrative of the open source community, it’s a shame Palm didn’t get recognition any sooner for this.

    • Jeff Waugh says:

      While I don’t think they were focused on engaging with the broader Open Source community early on, the success of WebOS Internals has certainly caught their attention.

      Plenty of tuned-in FLOSS developers have been paying attention to what Palm are doing with webOS… but as Palm have a “developer community” building for their platform, rather than an Open Source community building the platform itself, that makes direct engagement harder.

      I don’t think enthusiasm for Palm/webOS is a little bit late → I suspect the HP acquisition marks the beginning of a very exciting renewal. 🙂

      Update: Oh, and remember that part of the reason for the timing of this post is the anniversary of the Palm Pre and webOS. 🙂

  4. gbyron says:

    @rob To get one in .au I got mine off expansys. They were pretty good on pricing, only catch is that it has a qwertz keyboard and it’s a palm pre as opposed to the newer and more memory / flash palm pre plus.

  5. Lucas Rocha says:

    Wondering/Curious: the Palm guys managed to do something relatively sane open source-wise. Who are the any open source/community guys helping Palm to do it right on the open source front?

    • Jeff Waugh says:

      Early on, I’m not sure… but by the time webOS was skunked out, they had a fair amount of Linux platform experience (albeit undeployed).

      More recently, Dion and Ben have given them a massive injection of Open Source (not to mention open web) clue!

      It’s a question I’ve often pondered… perhaps I should start bugging people over there about the story (and people) behind webOS. 🙂

      • Danilo says:

        Oh, I had no idea they are using that much of our stack. I do remember Access stand in one of the GUADECs (Vilanova i la Geltru, I believe: I’ve got their t-shirt ;), so they did try to get involved better much earlier (that’s 2006). I guess it didn’t really caught on right then.

        Now, the only thing missing from either webOS or Maemo is bluetooth rSAP support, and I’ll have a tough call to make for my next phone.

        • Jeff Waugh says:

          Nah… ACCESS (or, really, ACCESS Systems America) is the charred remains of PalmSource, not Palm.

          ACCESS hold the rights to Palm OS (and BeOS, strangely enough) and made the ACCESS Linux Platform (which uses Linux and the GNOME Mobile stack), while Palm made the Foleo and webOS (both Linux based, but only the latter has lots of the yummy GNOME infrastructure bits).

    • Jeff Waugh says:

      Oh, and “relatively” is the right word… they did take a little while to publish their sources in the early days, and they’ve received a bit of stick for their odd patches here and there. But they’ve improved quite a bit on both fronts.

  6. Peter Stevens says:

    I have yet to develop for or own a WebOS phone but I’m equally as excited for the platform. Please, do blog more on your experiences.

  7. Dion Almaer says:

    Hi mate,

    Thanks for taking the time to write this, and to care. Very much appreciated. I really hope that the second year of webOS delivers on the great promise of the first. Exciting times.



  8. I totally share you enthusiasm for both the user and developer experiences on those devices. Thanks to the ubercool WebOS.

    I love the native/web standard hybrid applications workflow and abilities so much that I am trying to recreate those with the SeedKit project.
    As WebOS SDK, it allow devs (and their designers friends) to build up the UI of their apps using purely standard web technologies (HTML5/CSS3/JS) accessing lower level libraries and services thanks to Seed.

    I am currently trying to get the interest of contributors and app developers and am looking for any kind of contribution !

    Oh, I mostly forgot, more info there : http://live.gnome.org/SeedKit

  9. HateOnMEHater says:

    interesting how many articles like this start something to the effect of, “I’ve always been a fan of palm blah blah blah.”

    that seems to be palm’s problem. It’s only attracting the long time loyalists not enough new people. it’s not going much past it’s old fanbase.

  10. Bastien says:

    The Centro is a horrible piece of kit. Be glad you didn’t get one.

    — Bastien, Palm Tungsten owner

  11. Alex says:

    Have you tried gnome shell yet? When you do, you’ll notice it seems to have taken a lot of hints from webOS. Black bar across the top with status area top right, clock in the middle, application menu for current app top left. Notifications pop up from the bottom and stack up bottom right. press a button and your app zooms out.

    I really like my pre and its very nice to see palm accepting the homebrew crowd. They even mention it in some major presentations, like CES.

    • Jeff Waugh says:

      I have been playing with GNOME Shell a bit (sadly it’s horribly slow on my crash-test-dummy craptop, but works nicely on all my Intel hardware), but totally didn’t notice the similarities — nice!

  12. Rod Whitby says:

    Jeff, thanks for the great write-up about webOS.

    Anyone interested in community open source development for webOS can find us in #webos-internals on Freenode.

    — Rod (Preware and WebOS Internals founder and lead)

  13. JBinGB says:

    I’ve been a Palm user for seven years. A year ago I bought my Pre, I love WebOS.

    June 4th I bought the EVO. Why? The Pre hardware is not up to par to the brilliant OS. I grew very weary of this glaring shortcoming. I miss having a beloved Palm smartphone but my tears dried up quick once I got the EVO.

  14. kilari says:

    Ok. How is it no one has beat me to asking the question,”How is there a Pre with the carrier shown as Virgin Mobile in the top corner?” Was this just a shop or has someone actually been able to get Virgin Mobile to activate it on their network?

  15. nielsle says:

    WebOs looks nice, but I would be more interested if they released the mojo SDK under a free license.

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