HP’s webOS tablet: why is it special?

Apr 29, 2010
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The ink on HP's press release was hardly dry when speculation about a webOS tablet began; by the time of their investors call, it was inevitable that they'd be peppered with questions about the possibility of Palm's elegant OS on more sizeable hardware. For their part, beyond a tidbit promising they were looking at smartphones, slates and potential netbooks, HP are playing things close to their chest. Still, we've not been shy before in putting forward our opinion that webOS would make for a mighty fine tablet platform, which raises the question: exactly what needs to be done before a webOS slate could come true?

Ironically, while it's iPhone OS that has swept up attention for its tablet implementation on the iPad, and Android that has cornered the market for OEM/ODM models with a generally tenuous chance of reaching retail, webOS is perhaps the closest to being tablet-ready in its current state. As Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein told us a few weeks ago, webOS was designed not as a pure smartphone platform but as a "mobile device OS", suited to screen dimensions starting at cellphones and scaling up accordingly. It's not hard to read between the lines and see that, while tablets might have been somewhere on the Palm roadmap, the company lacked the financial strength to take on a relatively nascent segment.

Financial strength is not something HP lack, and the company has already promised to pump more money into Palm's R&D. Part of webOS' strength is in the elegance of its interface; in fact, its "live" cards system of multitasking seems to have been crying out for a larger display than what's currently on offer in the Pre Plus. Those cards - each of which represent a running app or webpage - continue to run even when the app itself doesn't have focus, something trickier to appreciate on a smartphone-sized device but perfect for flipping between programs on, say, a 7- to 10-inch tablet.

webOS' notifications system also runs rings around, say, that found on the iPad, and is arguably better than what's default on Android. In the webOS world, new messages, alarms and other updates are discretely bubbled up at the bottom of the display, rather than immediately demanding your attention. You can tap on the notification to preview it - better than Android's native alerts which, for instance, only tell you that you have x new email messages rather than who those messages are from - and then either leap from there to the relevant app itself, or flick the notification off the display and stay where you are.

It works brilliantly on the smaller displays of the Pre and Pixi, and it would work equally as well on a larger panel. In fact, Palm could give the notification area a little extra room to play with: list multiple updates in a ticker-style bar, for instance, ideal for a mixture of tweets, Facebook IMs, emails and calendar reminders. A bigger display could also allow you to run two cards simultaneously, perhaps each having a custom UI for such a mode that would fall in-between what will fit on-screen on webOS smartphones and what could be accommodated in full-screen tablet view.

Palm love gestures, and so why not take them to the next level? Say you have your browser card on-screen, and want to copy a block of text from a webpage to an email: you could tap and hold on the text, perhaps flick your finger up slightly to trigger the floating "copy" option that appears above the page, and then have the browser rescale and shift to one side of the screen. That would leave room for a grid of cards on the other side, letting you slide your finger across, drop the text onto the email app, and have a new message automatically created with the snipping pasted in.

Gestures as a whole would need a little rethinking; currently many of them require dragging up from the so-called gesture bar underneath the Pre or Pixi's display, which would be perhaps a far too expansive movement on the larger scale of a tablet. How about, instead, a touch-sensitive frame around the entirety of the screen, allowing you to pull up the shortcut menu or trigger a gesture no matter where your finger is near or what orientation you're holding the tablet?

The platform is also gaining momentum when it comes to gaming, and assuming HP make clever choices with tablet hardware there's no reason to assume that couldn't be continued to a larger device. Immersive 3D gaming (along with HD media playback) are not only fashionable buzzwords right now, they're use cases consumers are familiar with - that makes positioning a new tablet within a context buyers understand all the easier. When you take Apple's frustrating limitations on connectivity out of the picture, and give the webOS tablet an HDMI port for straightforward hook-ups to an HDTV, that's big-screen gaming and multimedia sewn up. iPad games using iPhones as individual controllers are slowly gathering momentum; why can't the same be the case for webOS?

Of course, HP are no strangers to tablets themselves; they've a Windows 7 slate due to go on sale later this year, and they - or at least their Compaq acquisition - were responsible for what's gone on to be one of the most iconic tablets so far, the tc1000 and its tc1100 successor. HP's decision to axe the distinctive form-factor and instead move to more conventional convertible tablets was a disappointing one; we're hoping that same blinkered vision doesn't impact the potential for innovative devices running webOS.

A good example is HP's apparent reluctance to take on Apple with a sewn up multimedia and content ecosystem. Asked during the investor call whether they planned to move into the content platform side of business, HP would only say that their focus was "to provide connected devices that allow people to connect seamlessly to their information whether that be work or entertainment." So far that's been a strategy Palm have been unable to invest in heavily for financial reasons - instead they preload Amazon's MP3 store, and attempted to piggy-back onto iTunes for media management - but with HP's wallet there's a new opportunity to give webOS users the sort of interconnected ecosystem they deserve. Pair that with HP's existing mainstream computing line - less exciting than a shiny new MacBook Pro, perhaps, but with far higher sales figures - and you've got a huge market already sat in front of your preloaded content apps and sync tools.

HP are toeing the PR line, and either declining to comment on or claiming not to have made serious longer-term decisions about webOS and its future until the Palm deal is finalised. Still, you'd be mad to presume those questions haven't been well turned over behind closed doors. With Apple's iPad already on the market and Android-based competition from other big-name computing firms on the near horizon, one thing HP haven't got is time. Luckily, the thing they do have is a well finessed mobile device platform. Let's hope they make the most of it.


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