How Palm webOS Works


Palm CEO Ed Colligan poses with his company's Pre smartphone on May 28, 2009. See more cell phone pictures.
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

In the mid to late 1990s, if you were a savvy gadget user, you probably carried around a personal digital assistant, or PDA. The Palm Pilot 1000, first introduced in 1996, set off a craze in the world of must-have gadgets [source: Palm]. It seemed the next plausible step in personal computing -- now, people could have a miniature computer in their pockets. Around the same time, something else was going on that would change the way humans communicate. Cellular phones, originally born out of weapons technology and once supremely cumbersome, were now cost effective and compact enough for the masses.

Fast forward a few years to 2002 and the Palm Treo 180 from Handspring took gadgets to a whole new level. The Treo 180 essentially defined what is now known as the smartphone. It combined a PDA and a phone into a stylish package that could browse the Internet, handle e-mail and other functions you regularly perform on your PC. Handspring and Palm eventually merged and the smartphone revolution was off and running.

What makes a smartphone so dynamic is its ability to perform so many tasks. That's because a well-designed smartphone runs on an operating system similar to those in a PC. Apple iPhone OS, RIM Blackberry, Google Android, Microsoft Windows Mobile and Symbian are all systems fighting for smartphone supremacy. Palm's latest entry into the foray is webOS.

WebOS is Palm's replacement for its aging Palm OS, the system used by the Treo and Centro smartphones. Developed to satisfy the creative needs of today's multitasking users, webOS is designed to operate with Palm's newest generation of smartphones, which includes the Pre and Pixi.

When the Palm Pre was released, many tech journalists began talking about the device as an "iPhone killer." But it actually may be better suited for enterprise use and more of a competitor for the BlackBerry. Palm is promoting the OS as business-savvy, though its App Catalog -- the equivalent of Apple's App Store -- includes entertainment programs as well. If the new operating system sells well with both business users and consumers, Palm will be happy indeed.

So what sets the Palm webOS apart from the others? On the next page, we'll take a look.

Touring webOS

WebOS has a user-friendly, multimedia interface similar to that found on the iPhone, and it's currently showcased on the Pre smartphone, the first device to be released with the new operating system. A quick look at system on the Pre reveals a similar layout to the iPhone with applications arranged in rows of three and a Quick Launch bar containing four applications at the bottom. Graphically speaking, webOS is aesthetically pleasing. The colors are rich and applications look crisp and detailed. Like the iPhone, the Pre employs a touch-screen interface for navigation. This is perhaps where webOS differs from the rest of the competition.

Like Apple's iPhone, webOS is built around using a touch-screen interface. However, not all users prefer the touch-screen-only approach. As a result, webOS engineers designed an operating system that can be used with only a touch screen or in combination with a physical keyboard. Like applications designed for the iPhone, webOS developers write Ajax-based software. Traditionally, Web applications are HTML-based and use HTTP as the main vehicle of communication. Once a request has been sent, the application waits for a response before updating, which slows down the program. Ajax applications, however, handle user interactions directly and transfer information asynchronously. In the end, they're faster than their HTML counterparts [source: Palm].

WebOS offers users a breadth of features you would expect to find on a personal computer. Contacts, calandars, e-mail and a full Web browser are all included with the operating system. You can even use the device to pull contacts from your various e-mail accounts and contact lists from your favorite social networking sites to create a personalized profile known as your Palm profile. Like many other smartphone systems now, webOS also offers software for developers to build applications. Palm made sure to ramp up its application development for third-party vendors to coincide with its launch in June 2009 (the Pre), again in the wake of Apple's success. Third-party applications ultimately will be vital to webOS's success.

Palm's webOS 1.2 version features the ability to purchase Amazon MP3 songs over a phone network, negating the need for WiFi, and credit card information can be stored in your Palm profile for future use with an upcoming e-commerce application.

Unique webOS Features

The Palm Tungsten, released in 2002, ran on the Palm OS. Palm replaced its old operating system with the webOS in 2009.
The Palm Tungsten, released in 2002, ran on the Palm OS. Palm replaced its old operating system with the webOS in 2009.

Something webOS does that you won't find even on Apple's iPhone is its multitasking feature. WebOS can run multiple applications at a time where iPhone can only run one. The card view function is similar to what you would find on your desktop PC or Mac. When multiple applications are up and running, you can scroll or shuffle between cards and resume activity on whichever activity you desire.

In order to make all this information easy to navigate, webOS employs a banner notification feature. When you switch to a new application, you don't close the previous one. Instead, the application moves to the background and keeps doing whatever it was doing. If you're listening to a song, it keeps playing. If you were watching a gamecast of a football game on ESPN Mobile, it will continue to update through auto refresh as if you were still watching.

But wait -- if you have no way of receiving updates, what's the point? WebOS has two ways of keeping you notified of your background applications. These are popups and banners. Popups are dialog windows that stay up until you close them, while the banner feature gives you a scrolling message that stays up at the bottom of the screen within the notification bar.

At all times, you have the ability to scroll through your cards. The banner notifications don't interfere with your card's window and are independent, meaning you can look at one while keeping an eye on the other.

Dashboard panels are small summaries of information regarding specific open background applications. In this view, you have smaller cards and ambient information displayed in rows depending on the number of applications in use. For instance, if your music player is open, the dashboard panel allows you to pause a song without having to switch between or close down applications.

The notification bar and dashboard work together to keep you in the loop of what's going on behind the scenes. WebOS's seamless integration of multiple applications allows users to balance several tasks. The user interface and display make feedback easy to understand. When updates occur, you're immediately kept abreast. The combination of the card view, dashboard and notification bar is really what differentiates webOS from the rest of the competition. But is it enough to catapult Palm back into the forefront of smartphone technology? We'll take a look in the next section.

WebOS and the Palm Revival

The Palm Pixi is the second smartphone to run the webOS after the Pre.
The Palm Pixi is the second smartphone to run the webOS after the Pre.
Courtesy Palm

When Apple introduced the iPhone in June 2007, it sent the rest of the industry scrambling. At the time, RIM Blackberry and Symbian had the majority of the smartphone market. That's still the case but over the past year, Apple has clearly emerged as a leader in the segment. What's more, the iPhone helped make smartphones popular in the consumer market, and not just for enterprise customers. Despite being offered by just one carrier (AT&T), Apple's iPhone has already carved out its niche and the company is looking for more.

From the second quarter of 2008 to the same period in 2009, Apple's smartphone market share grew from 2.1 percent to 13.7 percent. Sales increased from 700,000 to 5.7 million units for a 626.9 percent growth [source: Canalys]. In the meantime, Apple passed the market leader, Microsoft Windows Mobile, which dropped from 14.3 to 9 percent. Google's Android operating system captured 2.2 percent of the market in its first time out. And then there's Palm. So what does a company that revolutionized the smartphone need to do to recapture its magic? The brass at Palm hope the answer lies in the Pre and other phones powered by the webOS.

What made iPhone so popular is its display and touch screen interface, which improved its smoothness of operation. The proof is in the numbers. The percentage of smartphones with touch-screen interfaces made up 39.6 percent of the market in the second quarter of 2009. That's up from 11.7 percent the year before [source: Canalys]. Palm hopes to reap rewards from this trend, too. With a touch-screen interface, the Pre was designed to make the most of the WebOS platform.

Launched in June 2009, Palm sold an estimated 50,000 Pres during its opening weekend (June 6-7, 2009) [source: Elmer-DeWitt]. As of June 24, those numbers rose to an estimated 150,000. As it stands, Palm falls in the dreaded "other" category when looked at for market share. But the Pre may change that. As of the second quarter of 2009, Palm had acquired 3.3 percent of the total global market share.

Something else that may help Palm recapture its place among the smartphone elite is the Pixi. Touted as a little brother to the Pre, the Pixi is smaller, slimmer and lighter and lacks some of the features of its older sibling. It doesn't have WiFi or GPS but still reaps the benefits of the webOS [source: Mies]. The screen is also a bit smaller, 2.63 inches (6.7 centimeters) versus the Pre's 3.1-inch (7.9-centimeter) display, and while Palm hadn't put a price tag on the new phone as of this writing, speculation is it could come in around the $100 mark. Like the Pre, the Pixi will be offered on Sprint exclusively. That hasn't hurt Apple, but Palm could chose to offer webOS to other carriers. It may be necessary -- in fact, that's how RIM and Symbian have managed to hold on to their market share.

Well, you've learned what webOS can do. How about what it can't do, or rather, what Apple has done to ensure it can't do. After all, what would gadget technology be without a good old-fashioned cat fight between competitors? That's exactly what's been going on between Apple and Palm since Pre's introduction. The next section gets into that aspect in detail and answers the question of whether you can or can't sync webOS hardware with iTunes.

Controversy with Apple

One of Palm's key features, an attribute that made it even more appealing to some, was its ability to sync with iTunes. It didn't take long for Apple to come out with an iTunes update that rendered the feature useless. Apple, a notoriously hyper-proprietary company, took less than a month to come out with the update along with this statement:

"Apple designs the hardware and software to provide seamless integration of the iPhone and iPod with iTunes, the iTunes Store, and tens of thousands of apps on the App Store. Apple is aware that some third-parties claim that their digital media players are able to sync with Apple software. However, Apple does not provide support for, or test for compatibility with, non-Apple digital media players and, because software changes over time, newer versions of Apple's iTunes software may no longer provide syncing functionality with non-Apple digital media players [source: Apple]."

Palm made the next move when it issued the webOS 1.1 update in July 2009. This time, webOS tricked iTunes into thinking the Pre was an iPod classic, thus allowing it to sync seamlessly [source: Arya]. But that's not the end of the story.

In September 2009, Apple released iTunes 9. Again, the backdoor created by Palm was shut. So what did Palm do? You guessed it, the company released WebOS 1.2 that re-enabled syncing. As of this writing, Apple's sync fix has yet to re-emerge.

The two companies have drawn clearly decisive lines. In the Apple camp, you have the intellectual property argument, by which the company means the unauthorized use of iTunes. On the other hand, Palm says, essentially, that if people have paid for content, they should be able to access it regardless of what platform they use to access it. Palm owners can also choose not to upgrade to iTunes 9. Those who are using iTunes 8.2.1 can still sync their Pres with webOS 1.1.

For more information on smartphones and other related topics, take a look at the links on the next page.

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Sources

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