Mobile Tech

HP Breathes New Life Into WebOS

HP on Wednesday announced a restricted beta release of webOS 2.0, the operating system it acquired when it purchased Palm earlier this year.

This is open to developers belonging to Palm’s Early Access program.

The beta adds several new features, and apps built with it will be released to all carriers that offer Palm devices, Palm spokesperson Alex Hunter told TechNewsWorld. Hunter added that webOS 2.0 will be available by the end of the year and “will be the most significant update we’ve done since launch.”

Although webOS has been widely hailed as an excellent mobile operating system, it failed to gain any traction in the market when released on the Palm Pre and Palm Pixie. Will things be different now?

Features in webOS 2.0

In webOS 2.0, the “stacks” card metaphor introduced by Palm has been further refined. It now groups related cards in stacks, making it easier to move between tasks. HP has renamed “Universal Search” as “Just Type” and extended this feature.

“The Stacks feature is intriguing, and could allow HP to deliver devices with a feel and performance rivaling or eclipsing Apple,” Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld.

Another function, called “Exhibition,” is a new webOS 2.0 feature that will “inform, entertain and delight” users while their webOS device is docked. Developers can add “Exhibition” support to an existing app or build something new for this feature.

Analysts Al Hilwa and Rob Enderle both think the Exhibition feature provides capabilities that HP may leverage in other types of devices in the future, such as smart picture frames.

Palm is opening up its Synergy integration feature to appdevs in webOS 2.0. Among other things, Synergy gathers contact and calendar information from social networks, Microsoft Office Outlook, Yahoo and Google, and aggregates them into one view. Appdevs working in webOS 2.0 can now develop Synergy connectors for contacts, calendar and messaging apps. Later, they’ll be able to use it for other webOS data types as well.

In this webOS 2.0 release, Palm is taking the ability to build C or C++ plug-ins for apps built in HTML, JavaScript or CSS (cascading style sheets) in its webOS Plug-in Development Kit (PDK) out of beta. This capability lets devs port app logic from other platforms while retaining their user interfaces through Palm’s Mojo Framework.

Further, Palm has added several new HTML 5 features and enhancements in the webOS 2.0 beta.

However, webOS will still support Flash.

“Adobe and HP/Palm continue to work together to bring Flash Player 10.1 to webOS as quickly as possible,” Palm’s Hunter said. “At present, the integration work between the Player and webOS is undergoing extensive testing to ensure we deliver a high-quality implementation.”

Reaction to webOS 2.0

“It’s a relief to see this beta come out, as many had begun to wonder how seriously HP was going to take the mobile space,” Hilwa, a program director at IDC, told TechNewsWorld. “The richness of features here really shows that it wants to take this platform to the next level.”

The success of webOS may depend heavily on the PDK’s capability to build C or C++ plug-ins for apps built in other languages.

“Palm doesn’t have many devices in the market, and anything it does to make porting easier will help it get the applications it needs,” Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. “It may actually have to fund or do much of this work itself initially,” he added.

“This is where I think the most important impact of HP’s investment in Palm will be,” IDC’s Hilwa said. “Palm is smart to pull out all the stops to bring in existing applications, no matter what language they’re developed in, onto its platform. This might also bring in developers working in other ecosystems.”

It’s Pretty, but Will It Fly?

Although webOS is technically slick, Palm has had little success with devices running the operating system, mainly because the mobile operating system market is dominated by existing players.

Will webOS 2.0 be able to carve out a place for itself, or will it limp along like earlier iterations?

“I’ve always liked the Palm operating system, but in today’s market, it really comes down to what operating systems app developers are developing for, and that’s just a handful — Apple, RIM (Research In Motion), Symbian in Europe and Android,” Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat, told TechNewsWorld. “The rest of them don’t really matter that much anymore.”

The dominant mobile operating systems have the most traction among app devs, and that situation isn’t likely to change, McGregor opined.

“Application developers are only going to develop for the top one or two mobile operating systems,” McGregor pointed out. “They can’t worry about six or seven different operating systems; they can only worry about the ones that make money and about what they’ll deliver in the next three to six months.”

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