This Race Is Far From Over — an in-Depth Look at the Potential of webOS in a Rapidly Changing Mobile Market
At this very moment, there are three devices on my desk running what I consider to be the most competitive mobile operating systems: an Apple iPhone 4 running iOS 4.2.1, a Samsung Nexus S running Android 2.3 (“Gingerbread”), and a Palm Pre 2 running webOS 2.0.1. While the Nexus S may be what one would expect this piece to center around, the connections between Android and iOS in terms of both polish and market strategy remain disparate. webOS as a whole is fundamentally representative of how well a product conceived, iterated, and articulated by a single entity can be, and when compared to Apple’s strategy, tangible connections between the two platforms are much more apparent. The story of Palm’s recent attempts to regain relevance in the smartphone space is one comprised of both hardware and software — two components that are, unfortunately, polar opposites in terms of the thoughtfulness of their design and articulation.
The Question of Android
So why focus on webOS? Are Google and its partners not doing far better than Palm in the current market? Google’s marketing strategy for the Nexus S — an undeniable series of stabs at OEMs and carriers that customize their Android-laden devices — seems to suggest that the “additive free” Android experience provided by the Nexus S is something of value, and therein lies the problem: it isn’t. The notion that vanilla Android is an object to be lusted after by the general populous is a grand misnomer — one I can provide no better substantiation for than the continued existence of two entirely separate email clients on Gingerbread — Gmail and a generic “Email” application to which all non-Google accounts are delegated. Where the Android user experience feels piecemeal and often incoherent, webOS feels — on the whole — like a deeply considered product created by a single entity, which is to say, a lot like iOS.
It’s appropriate, I think, to include a brief introduction to webOS and the general mechanics of the Palm hardware on which it runs. Originally announced by Palm’s former CEO Ed Colligan at CES 2009, webOS 1.0 ran on a 500 MHz Texas Instruments OMAP 3 processor inside a portrait-oriented slider called the Pre. In addition to direct manipulation on the device’s touchscreen, the capacitive sensors extend below the display of past and present webOS devices to an area called the “gesture area.” This area, as its name suggests, is used primarily for using multitouch gestures to the traverse the view hierarchy of the webOS interface. A flick from right to left functions much in the same way as the “back” button in an iOS navigation bar, but you won’t find any back buttons in webOS. In current generation hardware, the metallic home button positioned in the center of the original Pre’s gesture area has been removed, and one accesses the home screen by simply tapping the center of the gesture area. When interacting with the gesture area on current Palm hardware, the device responds by illuminating a row of LEDs below the capacitive panel.
An Authentic and Tangible Experience
Though often more natural when learned, the problem with gestural interfaces has always been the learning curve one must persevere through to grow accustomed to what is still fundamentally a layer of abstraction between the user and content. webOS is no different — much like driving a car for the first time, the series of actions one takes before making a turn are not second nature at first, but with time, one performs them without conscious thought. What’s most interesting about webOS is the tactility its interface provides, which may sound surprising given that the number of non-keyboard hardware buttons on current webOS hardware are outnumbered by devices running Apple’s iOS. The webOS environment feels incredibly spacial and direct in the sense that it extends now commonplace methods of direct manipulation to the physical maneuvering of objects to perform computational tasks such as switching views, opening, and closing applications.
This isn’t to say that the logic of webOS is not lacking in places, because it certainly is. When swiping up from the gesture area to invoke the application launcher, it only seems natural that one would be able to swipe down across the same plane to dismiss it, but instead, a second swipe upwards causes the launcher to move downwards out of view, which feels jarring and incorrect. The magic of using the area surrounding the viewport to pull and push content is broken by limiting the gesture area to the space immediately below the touchscreen. This issue is compounded by the tappable area of icons — which aren’t contained in a fixed space as on iOS — not extending beyond the immediate pixel boundaries of each application icon. If there’s one thing Apple nailed in iOS 1.0, it was the interface’s attention to the inherent inaccuracy of a finger tip. On webOS, it is possible to tap the transparent space surrounding icons in the dock and launcher without invoking an application.
When introducing the original Pre and webOS 1.0, Matias Duarte stated that while using the Pre, one feels as if it is thinking one step ahead of the user. While I would not describe the experience of using webOS with quite the same grandeur, webOS feels distinctively tangible in a way that no other current mobile user-interface compares to. Unfortunately, the success of its interface is held back by these seemingly overlooked instances where the gesture area and webOS fail in both hardware and software to anticipate what action a user might take.
Messaging Done Right
webOS has the best mobile messaging solution on any platform right now. Technical features aside, it focuses on people, not protocols. With support for AIM, Google Talk, and SMS/MMS, conversations carried out using any of the aforementioned protocols are aggregated into a single thread with the recipient. The otherwise seamless experience of carrying out a conversation while performing other tasks on the device is broken only by Messages’ inability to switch automatically between protocols based on a user’s availability. If a conversation is being carried out over AIM or Google Talk and the recipient goes offline, one must manually switch to SMS in order to continue the conversation. Though frustrating, this is a difficult use scenario to tackle, as a user might prefer to leave a message for the recipient to receive the next time they sign in to IM.
A deeply integrated and monolithic location for instant text-based conversations is only half of the story, though. webOS’ notification system is what takes the messaging experience from good to great.
What is arguably the most important component of current generation mobile platforms is even more important for webOS, as the WebKit rendering engine is responsible for not only displaying websites, but the entire interface. The webOS browser is pretty good — it’s better than Android by far, but not as good as Mobile Safari, which remains far ahead of Android and webOS when it comes to page scaling, font rendering, and overall legibility. Comparatively poor font rendering is compounded by the lack of included system fonts — webOS replaces many standard “web-safe” fonts with Prelude, the system font designed by FontBureau.
The overall experience of using the webOS browser is much closer to iOS than Android and is, in some ways, superior. webOS focuses on enticing users to build a browsing environment tailored exclusively to mobile use. This isn’t to say that Mobile Safari fails in this area, but rather that webOS doesn’t even attempt to replicate things such as the bookmark hierarchy — or the lack of one — present in one’s desktop browser. Instead, the webOS browser presents bookmarks visually in a grid not unlike Safari’s Top Sites feature.
Quantifiable Surprise, Delight, and Frustration
As anyone familiar with interface design and Apple’s design mantras will know, surprising and delighting users is important. iOS is full of surprise and delight — areas of the interface home to both obvious and hidden easter eggs that provide additional and often useful functionality. An example of this, in the case of iOS, is one’s ability to tap the punctuation key and slide one’s finger to the desired punctuation mark. When released, the secondary keyboard switches back to the standard QWERTY layout.
A swipe down from the webOS status bar reveals a menu containing a plethora of frequently accessed system settings and information such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Airplane Mode. While this is a mere convenience, the sole reason Settings holds a prominent place on my iPhone’s home screen is for quick access to the aforementioned global settings. This menu is a feature no average smartphone user is likely to see, but it represents an elegant concession to more advanced users that continues to cement webOS’ position between iOS and Android on the spectrum of form and function.
webOS certainly is not without its frustrations, though. The efficiency with which one can change networking settings from the status bar can be contrasted with the experience of waking a webOS device secured with a passcode. After performing the webOS equivalent of slide to unlock (dragging a yellow lock icon past a specified boundary) and entering a passcode, one must tap a done button to complete the unlocking process. While my familiarity with iOS certainly increased my frustration with this process, the unnecessary third step stands out as as an example of overlooked areas of the webOS experience.
A Platform Without a Platform
I don’t have a Pre 2 on my desk because I’m heavily invested in the quality of the hardware and intend to use it as my primary device — I have it because webOS is a platform I believe has a tremendous amount of potential. That said, the current hardware certainly is not something I would consider waiting in line for outside a major retailer on a hot summer day. That’s understandable, too, because the Pre 2 is quite clearly aimed squarely at getting more modern hardware in the hands of developers as next year’s product roadmap is finalized, but I can only hope that such hardware arrives, because the Pre 2 is not a summer blockbuster.
The race for mobile industry supremacy is far from over — Google’s Android is growing in popularity among OEMs and carriers and iPhone sales continue to grow, exceeding 14 million units in Q4 of 2010. Only time and HP/Palm’s next moves will determine whether or not webOS succeeds, but for the sake driving competition in the area of mobile interface design, I truly hope it does.