HP webOS 3.0: what we know, what we don't | webOS Nation

HP webOS 3.0: what we know, what we don't

by Derek Kessler Fri, 25 Feb 2011 11:35 pm EST

If there’s one product announced at HP’s Think Beyond event that we haven’t been able to fully wrap our hands around, it’s HP webOS 3.0. And that’s not just because of the literal challenges that come with wrapping physical hands around a non-physical entity like software, but also because there’s simply a lot we don’t know about webOS 3.0. We do know that the basic interface paradigms remain unchanged: the familiar cards, launcher, Just Type search, and more are all there. But apps built in Enyo and working without a gesture area (at least on the HP TouchPad) mean a lot of changes are coming for webOS with version 3.0.

What we know:

webOS 3.0 will launch this summer with the new TouchPad tablet, and we’re not at all surprised that the tablet requires a significantly overhauled OS. It’s not that webOS wouldn’t work find on the larger screen size, quite the opposite, in fact, as much of the webOS user experience we know and love is still present in webOS 3.0. Just Type search and Quick Actions are there, your apps launch in cards and you can move them around in stacks and throw them off the top of the screen, and you can still browse your apps in a familiar grid of icons.

But that’s where the similarities appear to end. Every app we’ve seen demoed in webOS 3.0 has been thoroughly overhauled to work better with the tablet experience. Overhauled isn’t really a correct way to describe it, as the apps are actually ground-up new experiences. HP has taken to Enyo to build more flexible and richer apps for the TouchPad, but that required they start from scratch.

The fruits of their labor are immediately obvious with features like the sliding panels in the revised email client and the side-scrolling reels in Photos. Also obvious is the more iOS-like nature of apps like the browser: there’s now a desktop-style address bar with navigation buttons at the top of the browser window (it scrolls away) instead of the floating buttons we’ve grown used to in webOS.

Many of these changes were dictated by the sheer size of the TouchPad screen, and it’ll be interesting to see how they translate down to smaller devices like the Pre 3 and Veer. Other changes were dictated by other hardware aspects of the TouchPad, like the lack of a gesture area for swiping, tapping, and holding. Without the gesture area for back swipes and meta-taps, the webOS 3.0 user interface needed an overhaul to make functionality more easily accessible. In a way, putting webOS onto a tablet has forced HP to adopt some of the best features of the iOS UI while still retaining the points where webOS continues to shine.

That’s just the built-in apps, which will all be built in Enyo. But the TouchPad and other 3.0 devices will still be able to run older Mojo apps, but there’s a catch. The older apps won’t be able to access all of the scalable UI goodness that is Enyo, and they’ll have to run in a UI emulation window that will provide buttons to simulate the gesture area. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s the best solution to retaining backwards compatibility when removing the hardware that software depends upon.

As you might expect, webOS 3.0 isn’t just a UI overhaul for tablety goodness. The new version will bring a number of new features to webOS, including shared notifications and built-in HP printing support. The shared notifications work with a paired webOS device and will allow your calls and text messages to be forwarded to the tablet over Bluetooth. The TouchPad will even be ale to handle video calls from a paired Pre 3. That pairing is established using the Touchstone-tech Touch-to-Share communication coils, but all data transferring happens over Bluetooth. So while you can leave your phone on the Touchstone charger while you play with your tablet, you still need to be in the general vicinity (plus or minus thirty feet). In essence, the TouchPad becomes a Bluetooth headset for the phone.

Printing support will only be with HP ePrint printers, keeping with HP’s desire to build an ecosystem of interacting products, and though we only saw it demoed in the Photos app, we can assume that it will be integrated with a number of built-in apps and have an available API as well.

What we don’t know:

First and foremost on the list of don’t know is the same thing that’s at the top of the don’t know list for the TouchPad: when? HP says that they’re planning for availability of the TouchPad sometime this summer, but that’s at least a three-month range (June-August) and the “planned” bit leaves open the possibility of a delay. They say they’re not going to launch until the product is ready, but that they still want to get the TouchPad, with webOS 3.0, in customers’ hands as soon as possible.

There’s a second part to “when?”, however: when will webOS 3.0 come to devices other than the TouchPad? Not too long ago we’d point our fingers at Android and mock them for their fragmenting operating system installation base, with new Android devices running everything from 1.6 to 2.3, and tablets running on 2.2 and 3.0. Google claims that the next version of Android, presumably 3.1, will unify the diverging operating system forks, but we’re not certain when that will come.

Similarly, we’re not certain when or if webOS 3.0 will come to devices like the Pre 3, Veer, and Pre 2. Our assumption is that some sort of webOS 3.X update will eventually come to these devices to bring feature parity across the modern webOS lineup, but we don’t know if that will be webOS 3.0, or a newer form factor-bridging version like 3.1. In the meantime, with webOS devices currently running versions 1.4, 1.4.5, 2.0.1, and 2.1, with 2.2 and 3.0 on the way, you’ll notice that we’re going to be all sorts of quite when it comes to mocking our robot smartphone friends.

On the subject of other devices, there’s the question of your Palm Profile. HP says that for things like shared Synergy to work your devices need to be on the same profile, which makes perfect sense. They even made a point of it during the Think Beyond presentation: when you get a TouchPad, all you need to do is log in with your profile and all of your Synergy data will automatically sync down to the tablet. But there’s a problem that still needs to be solved: right now your Palm Profile is a one-device pony, and activating it on a new device will result in the erasure of the older one.

While there’s the technical problem of how to transition from single device profiles to profiles that can be shared across multiple devices, there are also logistical questions to be answered. The one that we know most of you are wondering about is the one that we’re wondering about too: apps. As we mentioned above, running Mojo apps on the TouchPad won’t exactly be the best of experiences, we’d all still love the option while we’re waiting for the developer community to prepare the apps we want for the tablet (yes, HP is going to do everything they can to make sure the apps are available, but the thing that’s going to convince developers the most will be sales of devices, which obviously can’t happen before the device is available).

So will our shared profile also result in shared apps, or are we just going to be looking at shared Synergy data? Synergy data is easy to solve; it’s just a set of logins, passwords, and a few preferences here and there. Apps are another beast. Syncing the app itself is a simple matter; it just has to be downloaded onto the other device when purchased on the first. But taking care of user preferences, caches, and databases is a different story. Then again, it’s a fairly natural extension of Synergy, and it’s definitely something we hope we’ll see integrated, especially with webOS headed to the PC in the none-too-distant future. On that subject of Synergy, there was something that Jon Rubinstein teased after his presentation: Music Synergy. We know precisely nothing about it, though we can infer a lot from what we know about Synergy now and some of HP’s recent purchases. Same goes for HP’s video store, which while not really discussed, was thrown up on the screen for all to see.

There’s one more point we’d like to touch on. During the Think Beyond presentation, Time Inc’s Chief Digital Officer Randall Rothenberg talked about how his company is bringing their publications to webOS 3.0, and will be offering both back catalog pieces and presumably one-off current article purchases, but what about subscriptions? Given recent moves by Apple and Google, a webOS subscription service would make sense to us, but we’re admittedly puzzled by Rothenberg’s hints that current paper subscribers would be able to access the same content free-of-charge on webOS.

There’s an awful lot of unknowns about webOS 3.0, and it’s really more than we could possibly hope to cover in a single piece like this. Much of that is because there’s still a lot of webOS 3.0 that needs to be hashed out by HP. It’s very much a work-in-progress, as evidenced by the very controlled and scripted demos offered at Think Beyond. While the argument could be made that HP should have waited to reveal the TouchPad and webOS 3.0 until they were ready for primetime, the counterargument can be put forth that they had to announce and get out in front of the impending flood of Android tablets and the next version of the market-defining and –dominating Apple iPad.

So we have another four-to-seven (or more) months during which we’ll be able to find out more about webOS 3.0, and the TouchPad. Hopefully we’ll be able to fill in many of these unknowns as the launch draws nearer, but we wouldn’t be surprised if HP holds back to reveals something new when the TouchPad is finally much closer to release.