Round Table: webOS on the PC
Welcome to Round Table, which is in fact not a table at all. Round Table is a continuing series on PreCentral where we pose a question to the staff and they provide their thoughts and insights. The question could be something simple like “Veer or Pre 3?” or something a bit more complicated, like “Is HP abandoning the ‘web’ in webOS?” Or maybe we’ll just end up chatting about how we miss the cartoons of our childhood. Today, we’re going to tackle something on the complicated end of things, and it’s something that we’ve been pondering since HP’s Think Beyond event last month: just how is HP going to get webOS on the PC?
Adam: When I first heard that webOS would be coming to the desktop, my initial reaction was a browser-based or emulator version of webOS that had full access to your Palm Profile (apps, contacts, data, etc) that simply ran on a computer and would somehow be able to take advantage of things like multi-touch and the gesture-area better than how the current emulator does (it doesn’t). However, after listening to presentations and interviews over the last couple weeks, it appears as if this will actually be incorporated into the OS itself and not just be an "app" that you run on the computer. This would also ensure that only HP would be able to offer this webOS experience on the desktop and not their competitors like Dell or Lenovo.
But what would that experience actually be? My guess is that there will be features that are incorporated into Windows (and can hopefully be turned off if the user doesn't want them) that will not only allow you to interact and update your Palm Profile data like contacts or calendars, but also give you access to any of your desktop-compatible apps, as well. Certain games that require the accelerometer, for example, may not be desktop-compatible, but why not be able to access games like Angry Birds or other basic applications? More important that just accessing your apps, the functionality that was introduced with the Touchpad to forward calls and text messages from your phone is the next logical step, this time forwarding them to your PC!
Also, while I doubt this will be in "phase one" of webOS on the Desktop, the next step would be the ability to have a Touchpad that will essentially replace your desktop PC, allowing you to run a Windows-based OS when "docked" with some form of webOS integration, and then allow you to detach it and give you the portability of a tablet running webOS. I know this isn't a new idea at all, but if done right, this could be a great way to truly bridge the divide between a PC and a tablet.
Derek: Before the Think Beyond event I was highly skeptical of HP’s plans to put webOS on the PC and on printers. I’m still skeptical about the value proposition of a webOS printer. But webOS on the PC does have me intrigued. I’m not interested in running webOS as a desktop operating system, but I see an awful lot from webOS that could make its way into the Windows operating system.
First and foremost are the apps. What makes or breaks the future of webOS is going to be the software experience, and I can’t think of any way that HP could leverage webOS into a superior software experience front is by getting webOS apps onto their tens of millions of desktop machines. Technically speaking (this is coming from one who is not all that technically minded, so just go with me here), running Enyo-built webOS apps on the desktop would not be all that much of a challenge. HP is developing all of their Enyo apps in an HTML5-compliant browser (Google Chrome, to be specific), and Internet Explorer 9 is going to bring HTML5 goodness to Windows 7 PCs world-wide. That’s not to say that HP couldn’t just skip over the support structure of Microsoft and run with a homebrewed WebKit layer to enable them to run webOS apps on the desktop. Some aspects of the webOS UI may find their way into HP PCs (particularly the TouchSmart line), but I wouldn’t count on too much of that.
The second step is Synergy. Right now Synergy encompasses just your basic PIM info, and having access to that on your desktop with just one log-in would be nice. But the real winner will be when your Palm Profile’s Synergy expands beyond just your calendar, contacts, and tasks. The magic starts with apps, especially Enyo. Buy an app on your phone and it automagically installs on your tablet and your desktop. Work in that app is automagically synced through the cloud between all of your devices. It’s a bit fantastical, but it would be a seriously differentiating feature for the HP ecosystem.
The last key to webOS on the PC is Touch-to-Share. Unlike apps and Synergy, Touch-to-Share is also part-hardware. I can see HP integrating Touch-to-Share sensors into all of their laptops and bundling it somehow with desktops, or maybe through the TouchStone v2. Either way, this is where that enhanced Synergy really comes into play. Touch-to-Share between your webOS apps (or Windows apps with applicable plug-ins, like Office) would trigger not only the transmiting of relevant info over Bluetooh (such as the current URLs), but also allow an app to share a file name for a PDF synced to the cloud, or save your game state to the server and automatically download it onto the tablet and launch the same game.
Really, in the end, it all revolves around Synergy.
Dieter: First of all, we are not going to see some weird dual-boot solution. If there is a dual-boot option, webOS will also run as an app inside Windows. I also don't think we're going to see a complicated skin on top of Windows that attempts to overlay or replace the Windows UI. We'll have a webOS app inside Windows.
From a technical perspective, I don't think it will be all that complicated: we have already seen webOS apps running and running quite well inside the Chrome browser. In fact, HP has been doing most of their next-gen development directly in the browser. So from a basic use case, all HP needs to do it create a custom browser for the desktop and have it run webOS 3.0. The only question is whether they will piggyback off of the open-source Chrome browser webkit framework or if they'll roll their own. I'm leaning towards the latter.
Will webOS be able to spawn multiple windows within Windows? Perhaps, but I think it will be radically easier to just run all of webOS on the desktop inside a single app window. That will allow them to continue to make use of their notification bar and menubar interface that we have already seen on webOS 3.0 / TouchPad. The other question is how deeply it will integrate into Windows. Will the Synergized webOS contacts app be available to Outlook? Calendar? Perhaps not with the first iteration - they'll need to see how popular it is. In the first run, as several PC writers suggested here, we're looking at something like Adobe Air but for webOS.
The next question is whether PDK apps (namely: games) will work on the desktop. I'm less sure about that - it will require significantly more overhead than the simple "webOS as a modified browser" framework I'm envisioning.
Basically what I think we can expect in the first version is this: Imagine a virtual TouchPad running in a window on your PC, one that may not run PDK games. "Just a TouchPad in a window" may seem like not a big deal - but then again the iPad was "Just a big iPhone." Sometimes the simplest ideas turn out to be more compelling than anybody expected.
Jonathan: While it’s entirely possible that HP could view webOS as a complete Windows replacement, I would be very skeptical of such a strategy, unless HP goes all the way and turns webOS into just another Linux distribution. Even there, if businesses want to run off Linux, they already can, so why bother choosing a different Linux environment with fewer apps as the major OS?
Instead, I envision webOS for the desktop as something like Java or Adobe Air on steroids: an environment running within a larger operating system that enables write-once-run-many applications across vastly different hardware types. Unlike, say, Adobe Air, webOS was designed from the outset as an OS, and offers file management and other OS-type features. It could be much lighter in footprint and processor usage than the webOS emulator that now runs inside Sun VirtualBox, and could be given direct access to the file system, Internet connection, printing, etc. Add to that the cloud-driven potential of the cross-device Palm Profile many of us expect in webOS, and the possibility that webOS could be the standalone OS for a netbook, and I see real possibilities.
Nathan: I actually don't think that HP has anything grandiose up its sleeve this time, depending on what you consider grandiose. WebOS will probably become the replacement interface for their TouchSmart computers. It is absolutely perfect for this purpose, especially on the new 610 Series with a display that tilts down at the perfect tablet-like angle for using its touch screen interface.
It will most likely be the same webOS 3.0 that runs on the Touchpad. I am sure that webOS apps will run on it the same way they do on the Touchpad, and if it is technically possible, I’m sure we will see Touch-to-Share working on their TouchSmart PCs too. So whatever you are working on at your computer, you can tap your Touchpad to it and take it with you to the couch, then tap your Pre 3 to your Touchpad and take it on the road with you. Putting webOS on the TouchSmart computers will make people want to buy those computers, and then playing with those computers for a while will make people want to buy TouchPads and Pre 3 smartphones.
Beyond the TouchSmart computers, I doubt there will be a webOS emulator or webOS web apps or anything like that. HP is not going to spend resources on building something that has no real practical purpose and will not go far to promote their brand and products. They want you to go out and buy a new TouchSmart computer, Touchpad, etc., and putting webOS apps on the computer you already have is not going to help with that very much.
There really would not be much of a reason to want webOS on your computer, outside of the novelty that would wear off fairly quickly. The simple question is, what can you do on webOS that you can’t do on the computer? For any of the apps you have on your webOS gadget, there are any number of counterparts for your computer that do the same thing. Now netbooks, that might be a different story.
Riz: When thinking about webOS on a PC, I think it’s best to look at some of the TouchPad’s features for guidance on how it’ll look. Bearing that in mind, I envision it being a pretty thin layer in the Windows environment, with similar sharing of calls and notificaitons between devices, and the music, photo and video hubs making their way over pretty much intact. In my ideal world, webOS would exist live in the background with only the “Just Type” bar visible from the Windows desktop. Typing in that would bring foward the all the instant searching UI goodness we know and love. I think given the other UI paradigms of Windows, some of the organizational principles of webOS (stacks, side-by-side cards, etc) might give way to simple windowed instances.
The webOS App Catalog itself poses a unique challenge, and I'm not sure how HP should tackle it. Fact is, there are plenty of Pre users who didn't know about the catalog, and this'll be even harder to discover for a webOS naive Windows user. If they just make it an icon on the desktop, it'll look like bloatware. Inelegant. If they don't put some special emphasis on it, tons of people will never see it. A walkthrough video on startup is one solution, but I think they need to go further. The best idea I can up with is to modify the Just Type bar to include a tiny clickable "app catalog" shopping bag on one side, but even that has shortcomings.
Finally, I deeply hope that the webOS layer is tightly integrated into the UI, and is set up as an "opt-out" for end users. Research has shown that the status-quo is what the majority will keep, and that'll ensure webOS stays present on all those PCs HP is shipping.
So there you have it, our thoughts on how to do webOS on the PC. The options are wide open, and we're sure that are plenty we haven't explored. Sound off in the comments below with your theories.