Forums | Reviews | Search | Full Version

The importance of the ecosystem

This time a year ago, my regular electronic device use consisted of a two-year-old MacBook Pro, a Sprint FrankenPre 2, a Pre3 on AT&T, and a white TouchPad. My FrankenPre 2 was starting to show its age at that point, and for a device that I had quite literally hacked together both from a physical and software standpoint, I was surprised by how well it was still holding up.

In the past year I've upgraded my laptop to a new Retina MacBook Pro (what a screen), swapped my degrading FrankenPre 2 for a Sprint iPhone 4S (the Pre3's still chugging along on AT&T), all but stopped using my TouchPad in favor of the faster, slimmer, lighter iPad Mini, and added a late-generation Apple TV to the mix (I had a first-generation Apple TV, but it hadn't gotten much use since I moved into a place where my office and living room weren't the same room). Today I caught myself looking at AirPlay-enabled speakers and AirPrint-enabled printers to complete the conversion. I've always been a fan of Apple's hardware products, but I wish I could have webOS running on all of my mobile devices, but in this day and age it's becoming harder and harder to be a webOS-everywhere user thanks to the manner in which webOS has rapidly fallen behind the competition on so many fronts.

It's the power of the ecosystem at work for me. Thanks to Apple's iCloud, my data is seamlessly synced between my iPhone, iPad, and Mac. And I'm talking about more than bits like my calendar and contacts, which for me operated outside of my webOS Account anyway (I'm a Google services whore, though I haven't yet been able to find a place for Android in my life). With iCloud everything gets synced: I buy music from iTunes on my iPhone and it's downloaded onto my Mac and iPad without a second thought, my browsing position in Twitter and App.net is synced across all of my Apple devices in TweetBot and NetBot. With AirPlay I can easily sling audio and video without a worry from any of these devices to my TV and hypothetical stereo. It all, more or less, just works, so long as Apple's servers aren't freaking out as they're prone to do on occasion.

I bring this up because I realized the other day that my household has been conquered by the bright white Apple over the past year. I've gone from one Apple device to several, all supporting each other as part of a generally cohesive ecosystem. Part of this is attributable to Apple's overall power as an organization, but also as part of their understanding of ecosystems.

There was a point about a year and a half ago where we were looking forward to a grand webOS ecosystem. We were getting our first hints of that with multi-device profile support in webOS 3.0, but there was still a ways to go in the webOS ecosystem then. Sure, you could log multiple TouchPads onto the same webOS Account, but things like your Memos weren't synced between devices once you made changes. But that's something we expected HP to eventually sort out once they moved webOS onto more devices, including their line-up of traditional desktop and laptop computers (or at least we hoped they would, otherwise it'd be quite the pain to deal with diverging records).

With Enyo we had the promise of building apps once and running them everywhere (unlike with TweetBot, which while a universal app between the iPhone and iPad, had to be built from the ground-up for Mac OS X), which we very easily extended in our minds to having data synced between the same app installed on multiple platforms. There were hints of Music Synergy to manage our tunes through the cloud, and Touch-to-Share had great potential to enhance direct sharing of content between webOS devices.

We all know what happened next, and HP and Gram are working to pick up the pieces still today. It's hard to say what shape Open webOS is going to take in the future under the guidance of Gram, but given their declared mission statement, we can see a cloud ecosystem coming back into the picture for webOS. We've already talked about how Gram intends to market a "Professional Edition" of Open webOS for money, offering a version of Open webOS with enhanced support and features.

As stated in the internal announcement of Gram (we're still waiting on an official public announcement), they're intending to leverage "the core strengths of webOS, Enyo, and [their] Cloud offerings" to "unleash the freedom of the web." What exactly that means, well, that's still open for interpretation, but the more I've thought about it, the more it starts screaming "ecosystem!" to me. 'Ecosystem' has for years meant 'accessories' - as then Palm Chairman Jon Rubinstein said when introducing the original Palm Pre wireless charging accessory Touchstone, he loves ecosystems. So do I.

Today ecosystem more and more is meaning non-physical services. Apple has iTunes, iCloud, AirPlay, and other services that aren't explicitly tied to any specific piece of hardware. It's the cloud. Apple has had to go through great measures to add cloud integration into Mac OS X and iOS. A few years ago, Apple didn't do these things, and the times that they had tried, they'd failed fairly regularly (MobileMe, anyone?). Even today Apple struggles with internet services, just look at the continuing issues with Apple Maps.

webOS, on the other hand, was built from the ground up with support for cloud services, thanks to its web technology base. From day one, webOS backed up and restored from the cloud and supported synchronization with multiple online services. webOS was and is still built for the cloud, but for a multitude of reasons, including a deficit of staff and money in comparison to its rivals, Palm fell behind.

But there's still a huge opening that Gram and Open webOS could exploit. It's been dubbed the "continuous client," and while some steps have been made towards enabling cross-device state synchronization, there's still a long way to go. Right now the continuous client only exists in segments, be they apps that support TweetMarker or place-saving in Kindle and Instapaper or tab synchronization with Safari and Chrome. But it's all app-specific and service-specific. The ideal continuous client would consist of me closing the laptop on which I'm writing this editorial and picking up my tablet to find that not only has my draft been synced over along with my browser tabs, place in Twitter, and IM conversations, but that draft I was working on is open and ready for me to continue on the tablet. Leave one device and pick up exactly where I left off on the other.

"Leveraging the core strengths of webOS, Enyo, and [Gram's] Cloud offerings" more and more is making me hope for an Open webOS continuous client, even if that has to be as part of the Professional Edition. The web-tech-based operating system is already there, the cloud services and servers are in place, and the cross-platform application framework and apps are possible; is it really a stretch to expect it to lead to a continuous client? Heck, webOS itself is still based on web technologies, I could see the day where I can access a my synced-state webOS Account through any browser and pick up exactly where I last left off, even if this isn't even my device.

For Gram and Open webOS Professional Edition to succeed, they're going to need to be more than an alternative to Android or Windows Phone to device manufacturers. They're going to have to offer something that's not just comparable, but better in appreciable ways. webOS is far behind in many ways, especially when it comes to the quality and quantity of apps (not to demean the platform's  continually dedicated developers, who still pump out as good of stuff as webOS can currently support). To make up for that shortcoming and eventually close that gap, Gram really needs to leverage those core strengths; if they could pull off the continuous client ecosystem, I could see the Apple logos slowly disappearing from my house.