RIP WebOS, the Best Smartphone Platform Nobody Used

Today, HP showed just how little they cared about WebOS. In the third paragraph of a press release about the acquisition of some other company, they said: "In addition, HP reported that it plans to announce that it will discontinue operations for webOS devices, specifically the TouchPad and webOS phones. HP will continue to explore options to optimize the value of webOS software going forward." In their earnings call, HP spent a minute or two explaining that after releasing one tiny low-end WebOS phone (the HP Veer) and six weeks after releasing a WebOS tablet (the HP TouchPad), WebOS was somehow not making gangbusters money, and should be killed. Now, onto some enterprise printer news.

Long-time readers may recall that I was a huge PalmOS fan for many years, using their phones well past their sell-by date because I loved the keyboard, I loved the openness of the OS, and I loved the vast numbers of applications. Then PalmOS gave way to WebOS, and my experiences with that rewrite were... not good... causing me to finally, regrettably give up on my Palm brand-loyalty and jump ship to the iPhone.

You can read all about it in my palm tag, specifically in "Dear Palm, it's just not working out".

Even though I gave up on them years ago, I do still feel a twinge of sadness. It's like when your favorite band releases a string of shitty albums late in their career, and then announce that they're breaking up. You haven't listened to them for years, but it still bums you out.

But there's one thing that WebOS got right that iPhone still gets incredibly, shockingly wrong, and it still puzzles me why they haven't caught up. (Maybe the answer is patents. Maybe it's just hubris. Who knows.) Anyway, it's this:

The WebOS "Messaging" app was transport-agnostic.

When someone sent you a message, it didn't make a fuss about how that message arrived. SMS? AIM? Jabber? Who cares. All of those messages showed up in the same interface, in a single list, grouped under the sender's name (assuming both their AIM handle and their phone number were in your address book card). When you replied to a message, it would default to sending it back using the same transport that the last message came in on.

This was genius, and I seriously miss it. It's the only thing about WebOS that I miss, and it's the only feature that no other phone has yet cloned.

The IM situation on iPhone is so bleak that I've just given up on using it entirely. When I'm away from my desktop, I only use SMS and am unreachable by AIM/Jabber/whatnot. That's bogus, but the various other IM apps on iPhone are so relentlessly terrible -- and require incessant fiddling-with instead of just being always-on -- that I decided that I just didn't care enough.

So that's what I miss most about Palm. The UI of the Palm Pre "Messaging" app. I can't believe that hasn't become the standard way of doing things everywhere yet.

Well, also I miss that when I had a Treo, I was essentially carrying around an original toaster-Mac in my pocket, architecturally speaking. Yeah, an iPhone is arguably more like a Cray XMP, but come on, a toaster-Mac phone. That's cool.

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34 Responses:

  1. Sivan says:

    The transport agnostic messaging is also on the Blackberry, and I believe it predated webOS.

    Today the Blackberry is the last PDA/messaging centric device and also the most open, in the old sense. You can install apps from anywhere and the API lets you intercept events, talk to other apps, run in the background, use RIM's push service and even customize the UI.

    • Bill Paul says:

      While it's true that the Blackberry does this, at least on my particular phone (Blackberry Curve 8320), the implementation could have been a lot better. When someone IMs me through the AIM client, the message shows up in the same combined message list (along with SMSes), but messages are always truncated there, and the only way to see the complete message is to click on it which, rather than just showing you the message, forces you to switch to a chat session window in the AIM client itself.

      This is a) overkill, and b) for reasons I can't fathom, the complete message still won't display if the user that sent it has logged out. This means if someone says "Hey Bill, meet me at such-and-such place at so-and-so time" and then logs out, all I'll see is "Hey Bill, meet me at" and recovering the rest of the message becomes much harder than it should be.

      Of course I compensate for this by having hardly any social life. :/

  2. David Glover says:

    At the risk of being shouted at...

    Have you tried Beejive and/or IM+ for iPhone? Both do a pretty good job at always-on IM, and will work even better once iOS 5 notifications come along.

    Neither, of course, integrates with the SMS app, but as far as I know that's sadly impossible without a jailbreak.

  3. Edouard says:

    I fondly remember my Palm Vx - All the built-in apps were so tight. Creating a calendar on my iPhone takes at least four times as long as it did on the Palm. Oh, and a search function that actually worked.

    And wasn't the Apple II a 6502? The Palms were 68k (well, Arm at the end, but still, you know, emulating a 68K). I always thought of them more like a Mac Plus - similar powered CPU, RAM, non-multitasking OS, black and white screen (well my Vx anyway - my later Palms were colour...)

    • jwz says:

      You are absolutely right. I was mixing up my prehistory.

    • LionsPhil says:

      The Palms were awesome little machines and I am somewhat bitter PalmOS was allowed to become "irrelevant" and then thrown out in favour of fucking Linux and webapps because it was a surprisingly pleasant platform to develop for.

      Also that not a single one of mine will hold charge any more.

  4. Erbo says:

    I seem to recall that the Palm OS architecture was actually more similar to that of early Mac OS, especially in terms of things like memory management. Given that it was M68K-based, that may not be too far off.

    I also wonder if Android's handling of things like SMS and network capability is good enough for someone to write a proper transport-agnostic messaging app ala the webOS one. If I actually knew more about Android development and had some test hardware, I might take a whack at it...

  5. A point of note: while unified messaging sounds like a good idea, I for one would hate it.

    Reason -- I travel internationally a lot. Which means I get to pay international roaming charges. When travelling, SMS messaging is not too outrageously expensive (US $0.30 per text). But roaming wireless data is billed per 1Mb block at US $5/Mb. So that first Jabber or IM message is going to ding me for $5, plus whatever the encapsulation/transport overheads are. SMS gives much finer granularity of charging if your use case involves lots of jet lag and no corporate overseer paying the bills.

  6. As someone who still has his original Palm III as well as the Handera and the Palm Zire 71 [James Bond hidden camera, eat your heart out], I feel your pain. I've been a PDA addict forever, and though I never owned a Palm phone, my Palm PDA [one of the above 3] was always with me. They reminded me of early Macs too - very speedy, straight forward UI, grey scale graphics and impressive memory management. I bought lots of 3rd party apps and grabbed a lot of the freebies. I still own my old Palm modem for the Palm III/Handera models as I remember using Eudroa for mail and Yanoff for newsgroups. Palm stuck by their tried and true OS for far too long, but I too stuck by them.

    Like you, I followed them even after I bought an iPhone. I watched an Apple exec move to Palm to [hopefully] bring them back up to speed. I've never tried WebOS, but watching videos of it, it looked like it would give Apple a serious competitor. I own an iPad, but I really want to try one of those TouchPads - I guess I'll be able to get one on clearance soon. :(

    Regarding messaging for iOS - version 5 of iOS will integrate SMS with non-SMS messaging, which is a step in the right direction. The OS will see if the other person has an iPhone, and if they do, it will send a message via the data plan, and not SMS. Apple needs to extend this further and do what WhatsApp does - their IM app works with Android, iOS, and several semi-smart phone OSes [and maybe even WebOS?]. All that is missing is a desktop app. I know Apple has embraced Jabber, so one can only hope that Apple might get WhatsApp-inspired features and "Jabber-ize" them so that normal desktop clients can interact just as easily with iOS 5's new iMessenger feature.

    • Apple has embraced Jabber

      I think it's not so much "embraced" as "will occasionally hold hands if they don't think anyone prettier is looking at them." They're certainly not showing up to parties together. Apple's Jabber integration basically boils down to two teams: OSX Server and iChat, neither of which appear to have any traction (or, really, any presence at all) on the iOS side of the world. The fact that they elected to write their own protocol for Facetime rather than use or extend any of the existing XMPP video chat options speaks volumes: I doubt you'll ever see any first-party jabber support on iOS.

      (It's good to remember that Apple, like Italy, isn't so much a country as a collection of duchies that are only kept out of open warfare with each other by means of judicious use of both bribery and armed force by the royal family. The only company-wide truth at Apple is What Steve Wants, Steve Gets: everything else is group-by-group and a technology adopted by one group may well be spurned by another. See also: iTunes versus Quicktime.)

  7. this is not good. I heard a rumor they'll open source webOS, but even if they do, I doubt much will come of it. :(

  8. Ralph Angenendt says:

    Nokia had the same with their Maemo (and possibly Meego) systems. Didn't matter as what a message arrived (Skype? AIM? Jabber? SMS? Anything someone wrote a telepathy plugin for?) and the message was put into the view with all messages you ever exchanged with that person.

    That's why I looked at WebOS as a followup to my Nokia phone, because I really loved that (except that fucking skype spam).

    Well. No more Maemo/Meego - and no more WebOS.

    I actually do wonder why the big messaging company (well, they do web search, too) doesn't have that in their OS either.

    AFAIK WebOS used telepathy as the protocol stack, too.

  9. WebOS isn't dead. The hardware to run it is. This may seem like a trivial distinction, but it is not.

  10. Jake Nelson says:

    I'm a slow updater- I went from a Palm m100 to a Droid. Still miss my m100, occasionally tempted to try to resurrect it. Besides the obvious, was the best remote control ever (well, with an IR amp), which has not been replaced by modern tech (where's my micro-USBIR gizmo, Motorola or whoever?)...

    New version of the builtin Messaging app on my Droid3 seems pretty damn close to transport-agnostic. It's not quite, but almost, and they seem to be working toward finishing that.

    I hope WebOS gets open-released, because many of the good bits would likely make their way to Android, be it via OS or app.

  11. Juan Quintela says:

    Nokia n900 also has a nice Messaging interface, everthing is a "conversation", be it an SMS, IM, whatever. Well integrated with the Phonebook, skype is also integrated, ....

    But if you think that WebOS is dead, Maemo is ...... MIA.

  12. Poor Palm. Always outnumbered, always outgunned. I had basically every model PalmOS phone in the Handspring/PalmOne family tree, starting with a VisorPhone and moving on up through the 700p, and loved and hated them in equal measure: it was 100% clear that they had hit upon exactly the combination of computer and phone that was going to be What The Fucking Future Looked Like, and it was also just as clear that they were incapable of ever delivering the actual real-world software and hardware that would deliver on that vision.

    I still like to think that if it hadn't been for the multi-year disaster that was the "Foleo" project, Palm might have been able to respond to the iPhone in a timely fashion and at least hang on for a while. But they gave Apple and Google nearly a two-year head start and were never able to actually align their hardware/software ship cycles well enough to give anyone but die-hards a good reason to buy a WebOS phone. (Plus WebOS was the dumbest name in history.) Then they were stupid enough to trust a promise made to them by someone sitting in the rotation position of "as-yet unindicted criminal in charge of HP", and that was the ballgame. The people, damn them, have spoken.

  13. Don says:

    I'm sort of astonished that this iteration of texting that iOS5 does isn't better bridging the IM gap you mention. Great, you'll send my iphone to iphone messages over wifi if it's available. I stopped caring about that stuff once all-you-can-eat text message plans became the norm years ago; the best this gets me is when the wireless coverage in my office is shitty (which I'd rather they fixed by fixing the groddamned crap wireless network).

    What about when I'm back at my desk? Do people really prefer to type that shit on their wee iPhone keyboard or flat-glass iPad rather than via their keyboard? I don't get it. Maybe the next step is Apple licensing bridges into iMessage or something but I don't care till I get a proper keyboard. If the iPhone just adopted the scheme you describe for dealing with IMs (rather then spending their time integrating fucking twitter into the OS. W.T.F.???) we wouldn't have to care.

    • Rick C says:

      " Do people really prefer to type that shit on their wee iPhone keyboard or flat-glass iPad rather than via their keyboard?"

      Speaking of this, I was actually going to make this comment in another thread, the one about how the PC will be an endangered species in a couple of years in favor of iPads, but this is a good hook to hang off of.

      I don't know about the rest of you, but I just can't see all those middle-aged women in HR departments (for example) ever willingly giving up their PCs in favor of tapping out a complex operation in an LOB app on an iPad. Ditto running a payroll, or a order inventory report in a factory, etc.

      I'm not saying it couldn't be done, but it feels like it'd be a lot more work.

      • Yariv says:

        I think that you miss the point.
        The idea is to use a docking station, something akin to the Motorola Atrix. You will still get your keyboard and gigantic screen, but it will not be a PC connected to them.

        • Rick C says:

          I'm aware of that, but I'm not sure how much effect will it have. Can you connect a mouse to an iPad? If not, then moving around in an application with 60-80 UI objects on screen is going to suck, especially the way lots of developers can't be bothered to get things like tab order right. And bouncing back and forth from the keyboard to the (presumably vertically-mounted) iPad's touch screen will slow people down. I don't think apps that require that kind of level of data entry/UI fiddliness will translate to this model any better than you'd want to do it, say, on a phone's touchscreen (but for a different reason, of course: screen size) or do coding or write a novel. I'm willing to admit I could be wrong but I think we'll need a new model to make it work.

  14. Andrew Lewis says:

    I wonder how this decision at HP really was made. Did the new CEO just say "Well, things aren't working well right now with phones and tablets, and PCs are low margin. So let's dump all of that, and go do software services, which is what I know about" with absolutely no regard to the company's abilities (whatever those are). That is sure how it sounds from the outside and if true, I'd sell/short them to oblivion.

  15. Mark says:

    I type this via my Pre+ and am quite disappointed. It's an excellent little phone. Sure, it has a fraction of apps that iPhone and Nadroid have, but I only really need one Fart-app, not 50. The default apps all work so well that I never really needed the app store.



  16. Owen says:

    For me, nothing compares to the IM experience of the Sidekick. When I switched from that to Android, I thought, "With all this 3G bandwidth flying around, who would need a proxy-based IM service?" But it turns out that IM on Android sucks just as bad as on iPhone apparently, to the point where I just don't bother trying to use it. I guess everyone just uses SMS for everything now? Or so few people ever had the Sidekick IM experience that they don't know it could be better? Bah.

    • Jon Konrath says:

      The Sidekick's IM did rule. The browser was hit or miss, but the IM and SMS was done well. The best part was you could get the data-only, voice-optional plan if you never used the phone and did everything through IM or mail.

  17. nickgrim says:

    HP reported that it plans to announce that it will discontinue operations for webOS devices

    Oh, so they haven't announced they're killing WebOS, they've announced that they will announce that they're killing WebOS.