What would a webOS smartphone need to be competitive today?
It's time for a webOS Nation brainstorming session. Late last week we were all some combination of perturbed, disturbed, hopeful, wistful, enraged, or just play befuddled when HP CEO Meg Whitman proclaimed that yes, HP eventually will have to make a smartphone. "But you already did that!" was the cry in all capital letters across the internet, followed by the cacophony of a million techies sighing at once.
But it got me thinking - is webOS as it stands right now really capable of standing up to the giants of the current smartphone industry? We all know the merits of webOS - multitasking, notifications, Synergy, Just Type, and so forth, but right now even the Open webOS that's coming up is looking to be seriously devoid of feature updates. So, if somebody - anybody - were to take webOS and make a smartphone out of it, what would it take for somebody to be willing to pick it up instead of the iPhone or Galaxy S or Droid or Lumia sitting elsewhere on the shelf in the carrier store? Let's delve into that, shall we?
We'll start with the assumption of webOS 3.0 melded with webOS 2.2.4 as our basepoint. Everything that webOS 3.0 can do, dropped down into the form factor of a webOS smartphone, essentially. Now sit this phone next to the Apple iPhone 5, Motorola RAZR HD, Nokia Lumia 920, and Samsung Galaxy S III. What's missing?
We could go on and on about hardware. A modern webOS device would need to have a higher resolution and larger screen (hell, even the iPhone 5 has a 4-inch screen now), an LTE radio, faster processor, more RAM, more storage, a bigger battery, a better camera, and maybe other extraneous bits like NFC, all crammed into an impossibly thin shell to be taken seriously at a glance. This thought exercise is more a matter of software. After all, Open webOS is open source - anybody can take it and put it onto whatever hypothetical hardware they want (with some work, clearly) - so let's focus on how the software can be improved to modern standards. I'll offer up two major points - application selection and camera software.
The Google Play app store has more than 500,000 available apps. Apple's App Store has over 700,000. The exact number of apps in the webOS App Catalog hasn't been announced, because it's frankly not an exciting number. As our last count, over a year ago before HP turned off the app feeds, there were nearly 7,000 total apps in the Catalog. Considering that the HP TouchPad, Pre3, and other future webOS devices were unceremoniously killed just 49 days after the tablet launched, it's little surprise that app development didn't take off after that point. There was never a "hey! 10,000 apps!" announcement because the App Catalog never got that far.
It's not just the sheer quantity of apps. We all know that at least a third of the apps for Android, iOS, and even webOS are specialty apps made by the developer often to fulfill a distinctly small niche and purpose said developer needed and maybe a few other people need too. Another third of the app store selection is utter and completely worthless crap. The last third are apps that a broader selection of people might find useful, with maybe a hundred apps that are going to appeal to the overwhelming majority of the platform's users.
So while the App Catalog's distribution fits around that one third/one third/one third model, the numbers are much fewer, and thus the bell curve of apps that people may fund useful is narrower. There's a huge chicken-and-egg problem with apps and platforms. Customers won't buy a phone because it doesn't have the apps they need, and developers won't make the apps because there aren't the customers to justify the development cost… because customers won't buy the phone because the apps aren't there. It's cyclical, and it takes a lot of effort to break the cycle.
How does one break the cycle? There are a couple of options. One is simply to get the hardware into more hands, thus creating the customer base. Nokia's been trying to do that by offering their flagship Lumia 900 smartphone for just $99.99 on AT&T. Sales have been decent, they report, but nowhere near iPhone and Android levels and nowhere near well enough to save Nokia or prop up Windows Phone. But it's made a difference in the app game, as many more Lumia smartphones have been sold and developers are starting to take notice of Windows Phone's growing, but still relatively small, customer base.
Another is for the manufacturer or platform builder to bribe (in essence) developers to make apps for their store. Both Microsoft and BlackBerry have tried this, though with limited success. Even Palm and HP got in on the game, offering reduced cost developer hardware, though we've long argued they should have bit the bullet and offered free developer hardware. Microsoft, when attempting the build of the Windows Phone Marketplace in the early days of the platform's life, offered developers up to $10,000 to have their apps in the Windows Phone app store, a scheme that Research in Motion is going to emulate as they ramp up the BlackBerry 10 app store.
There's a third option, and that's to hijack another platform's apps. It's the quick and dirty, if you will, way to get a bunch of apps and to get them quick. They may not all work well, if at all, and even if they work well it's not going to be an ideal experience. That's another thing that Research in Motion tried for the BlackBerry Playbook (in addition to giving away their stockpile of the poorly-selling tablet to developers), though it wasn't able to spur on sales of the PlayBook. Though really we could just chalk up the PlayBook to being a product that wasn't that desirable to begin with (don't tell CrackBerry Kevin I said that).
Flooding the market with cheap webOS hardware is a hypothetical right now, considering there's no such thing as new webOS hardware with which to flood said market. We can also check off buying the loyalty of developers - HP's not going to pony up thousands of dollars per developer, and we can't say that our hypothetical device manufacturer is going to do that either. They're hypothetical, all they can offer is hypothetical cash. So let's go hijack an app store, shall we?
There are two great last hopes for webOS. The first is Enyo 2.0. The cross-platform application development framework was rebuilt from the ground-up to be competitive and alive on all platforms. Technically speak, Enyo 1.0 is also cross-platform compatible, though in our experience Enyo 2.0 apps are simply faster and smoother across multiple platforms than the older version of the framework.
The problem is, despite HP's best efforts to break the bond, Enyo still remains inextricably bound to webOS in the minds of mobile developers. HP's had some success with Enyo 2.0 and outside developers who are looking to developer for multiple platforms, but right now Enyo 2.0 is still lacking in some serious ways that are holding back more serious app development. HP says they're working to shore up the broader reaches of Enyo to enable those apps, but it's going to take time.
The second great last hope comes from an outside source: OpenMobile. They're the ones that made a splash earlier in the year by showing off a demonstration of the Android Compatibility Layer at CES 2012. In January. Running in the TouchPad development emulator on a desktop machine. It wasn't exactly an exciting demo, except that it was Android apps running inside webOS. While a webOS device running the ACL wouldn't have access to the Google Play app storefront (that's only available to Google-certified Android devices), it would be able to get into third party Android app stores, like Amazon's, which offers tens of thousands more apps, including many heavy hitters in the Android space. We haven't heard much of anything from OpenMobile in the months since, though they recently assured us that they're still working on the ACL for webOS.
Whether or not priming the pump with an extra thirty thousand or so Android apps would make a difference for webOS is an unknown. But it certainly wouldn't hurt to have those apps available.
But it would only stand a chance of making a difference if those apps ran just as well on the hypothetical smartphone as they do on Android. Then, of course, that poses the problem of potentially hinder the need for developers to learn to developer for webOS in the more appropriate Enyo 2.0, meaning the better framework for the platform could languish instead of getting the attention and apps it needs. But that might be a risk our hypothetical webOS smartphone needs to take to break the consumers/developers vicious app cycle.
The Camera App
Alright, so let's talk camera, shall we? We can throw all of the fancy optics and megapixels we want at a webOS device, but it's not going to make up for the fact that the webOS camera app sucks. It's 2012 and it's just awful. I cringe every time I have to use my Pre3 to take a picture. The phone takes barely decent photos, but the app is just plain awful. The design is campy, the viewfinder doesn't fully frame the photo (photos are taken in 4:3, while the screen is a wider 5:3, cutting off the long sides of the viewfinder even though they're seen and captured by the sensor), and the touch-to-focus feature is finicky and has a tendency to jump back to the center a few seconds later, all but defeating the purpose.
To be competitive in 2012 (heck, 2013's not that far off), the webOS camera app needs to be rebooted from scratch. It needs better sharing, it needs better serious photographer features, it needs a better interface, it in needs… more. So very much more.
Let's start with the interface: make it clean, make it simple, and make it show the entire frame of the photo. Take a look at what is offered in the latest versions of Android and iOS for clean and simple camera apps with plenty of features for the average photographer. And of, those features that need to be there.
HDR - high dynamic range imagery - taking three photos in quick succession with wider and smaller aperture sizes and combining them to produce a final product that's ostensibly more 'life-like' in that there are enhanced details in the shadows and highlights that wouldn't be seen in a single ideal exposure - has been available on iOS and Android devices for years, though it takes some processing on the back-end.
Panorama too has been available for years, though the arena was first dominated by third party apps and the feature was just added to iOS 6 for newer iPhone users. The vast majority of those third party solutions (Android's built-in version included) would stitch together a series of images the phone guided you to take, while the new iOS 6 panorama feature captures the panorama image as you pan across your, uh, orama. Regardless, you generally end up with a sweet wide-angle view of your location.
Then there's focusing and exposure. Oh, how crappy webOS cameras used to be. Remember the 'enhanced depth of field' camera from the original Pre? The one that overly processed your images after taking them to make up for the fact that the camera wasn't that good to start? Yeah, that one. Thankfully we were able to drop the EDoF camera with the Pre3, gaining real live autofocus, but frankly it still wasn't that great. Like all smartphone cameras, the Pre3 defaulted to the center on launch, and you could tap elsewhere on the screen to change the focus point. Problem is, after a few seconds the Pre3 would forget that you'd told it to focus there and default back to the center. Good luck composing any interesting off-center shots with webOS right now.
Focusing with webOS needs an overhaul if it's to be taken seriously. Firstly, tap-to-focus needs to be persistent. Secondly, the camera needs face detection for when you're not using tap-to-focus. Chances are, if there's a face in the viewfinder, you're taking a picture of that face, or at least the person to which that face is attached. If you need to focus on something else, you tap elsewhere.
Additionally, I think this hypothetical webOS camera app should go further than what the default Android and iOS apps offer and allow users to independently meter exposure with a similar tap-to-meter scheme. Take the popular iOS app Camera+ for example. The focus box has a little + sign you can use to drag out an exposure meter, allowing you to focus on one point but get the light balance in another. Not sure what that could be useful for? Say you're taking a picture of a lit sign at night. If you take both your focus and exposure from the sign, you might capture the sign well, but the surroundings will be quite dark. If you can take your exposure reading off of of the darkness, though you'll get something a bit more like what your eyes see - a brightly-lit sign whose surroundings, while dark, you can see.
And it we're going to get into fancy features here, let's go all out and talk about shutter control. While a smartphone camera wouldn't necessarily benefit from the same kind of advanced shutter control you can get with a DSLR, there are still options that should be provided. Faster shutter speeds but at a lower resolution, for example, would be useful for capturing action like the kid's soccer or softball game. Any action photo you take with a webOS camera right now is practically guaranteed to be blurry, even on a brightly-lit day. Delayed exposures would be great for those group shots where you want to be in the photo too. And you know what? I wouldn't mind having the option for long exposure times either, letting you capture brilliant images at night (so long as you can keep the camera still) like those awesome photos of highways with streaks of headlights and taillights.
Then there's sharing. If I take a photo on my Pre3 I can send it to a friend via email or MMS or upload it to Facebook or Photobucket. My TouchPad lets me send a photo to an HP printer (how exciting to share these paper artifacts). If I take a photo with an iPhone I can also upload it to Twitter and it can be automaticallly added to my Photostream. The same photo taken with an Android smartphone can be uploaded to Google+ and other services. This sort of sharing needs to happen in webOS. There doesn't necessarily have to be a webOS equivalent for Photostream or Google+ autoupload, but to be competitive the webOS camera app does need to tie into more than just Facebook and Photobucket. Offer support for Twitter and Flickr, strike a deal with Instagram (or heck, offer your own filters), upload to Google+/Picasa, and whatever other up-and-coming photo sharing sites might be out there.
There's so much more
The application selection and camera features are just a few of the software hurdles that webOS must overcome to be competitive in 2012, let alone 2013 or 2015. webOS, quite simply, is behind the times of features. Many back-end improvements have been made to Open webOS in the process of open sourcing, but for any new webOS smartphone - or tablet for that matter - the features of the software are going to be what helps drive sales. It doesn't matter how fast or technically impressive it is if it just doesn't do what you need or want it to do.
That's how webOS fell behind in the first place. And that's partly because Palm didn't have the resources of Apple or Google to make the important things happen. Of course, when HP bought Palm they were supposed to bring that level of resources to bear, but that's an opportunity past. Looking forward, if webOS is to stand any chance of success in the marketplace, it needs major and rapid feature improvements. That conversation starts here.