Update: Now that HP’s acquisition of Palm is complete, the companies is talking about using WebOS on future smartphones, tablets, and netbooks.

Ever since HP announced plans to acquire Palm a few weeks ago, there’s been a lot of speculation about exactly what the company plans to do with Palm’s WebOS operating system. Today an HP exec has confirmed that the company is developing a WebOS tablet which should be available by October. That’s not particularly surprising.

I was a little surprised to learn that HP is pretty much ruling out putting WebOS on a netbook. HP CEO Mark Hurd mentioned the other day that all sorts of devices, including web-connected printers could be equipped with WebOS in the future. So it seems strange to rule out a rather obvious product category like netbooks or smartbooks.

That said, I’ve long suspected that a hurdle smartbooks and other Linux-based netbooks have to overcome is the fact that they look like laptops. And people expect laptops to do certain things — like run the applications they’ve been running on PC or Mac computers for ages including Microsoft Office, Photoshop, and so on. Sure, we’re moving toward a point where the most important app on any machine is the web browser, but while people are perfectly happy to adjust to the peculiarities of a smartphone or iPad-like tablet, if you present someone with a device that has a 10 inch display and a keyboard they tend to think they already know how to use it and could get frustrated when it turns out they don’t.

Of course, there’s nothing preventing users from hacking WebOS onto netbooks — and we’ve already seen some folks taking the first steps toward doing just that.

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18 replies on “HP: WebOS slate on the way, don’t expect a WebOS netbook”

  1. I think that some of us are ignoring new trends both in OS and user preferences. The apple iPod/iPhone OS is a great example how people will change willingly everything “the already know how to use it” for a “better” way or “different” way. Someone is going to eventually hack up Linux enough to make it simple and easy to use. Ubuntu tried but did not do it enough. Today with online services like Zoho and Microsoft office online, the ability to do most things through a browser are almost there. It’s only a matter of time until there is going to be a generic tablet OS/Office/Apps…. etc… etc… which will give users and developers an advantage. I am sure that Linux developers will jump at a business model like Apple’s App Store in no time… (just a crazy idea, make $20 instead of nothing and keep Open Source?)

  2. I’m not that surprised. In fact, I’m sort of relieved in the sense that maybe somebody at HP may actually understand the issues at work and is actually going to try to solve those issues before crossing back into the traditional notebook form.

    Modern smart phones, which gave rise to WebOS, are up against two GUI issues that notebooks and desktops have historically not had to deal with. The first is the relatively small size of the display. The second is the insistence of on a touch interface. Taken separately, these are both important issues. Taken together, they aggravate each other. The worst-of-the-worst in terms of usability is a tiny display that doubles as the input device and requires your fingers for interaction. Our fingers are big and clumsy which requires interfaces to be oversized and forgiving. This leads to a pretty inefficient use of an already tiny amount of screen real estate, not to mention the fact that when your hand and fingers are doing input, the display is occluded. I think this is most cleverly summed up by comments like “there’s a reason we use pens and pencils instead of finger painting” and “there’s a reason why your car has a steering wheel instead of a touchscreen windshield”. Early Windows Mobile (i.e. WinCE) responded to these issues by offering larger widgets in the GUI, and touchscreens could respond to a stylus so that you could input with greater accuracy and better visibility. Early Blackberry devices responded to the issues by not even offering touchscreens. Current efforts from Apple and Google go with devices with larger, higher resolution screens where much of your input is “swipe oriented” rather than touch-oriented to solve the visual occlusion problem.

    The important thing to remember in all of this is that we live in a time in which most people can and in fact do “live in a web browser”. This is very easy to do on a desktop, notebook, or netbook that runs a proper operating system and offers a proper web browser. This is almost impossible to do on a current smartphone. The browser experience is very limited, and “apps” are needed in order to restore a comparable quality of life to what you can get from a proper computer when you “live in a browser”. Because people don’t really talk about this, I guess they either don’t know or don’t care, but one of the best (and yet worst) kept secrets of the industry is that the World Wide Web was not designed with tiny touchscreens in mind. Websites are from an era of desktops and notebooks. There have been many attempts to address this such as “.mobi” TLDs, but it’s these “apps” that have had the most uptake from developers and therefore the greatest consumption from users. (As a side node, this is very sad for the future of the Internet because it’s leading to a balkanization of the web in terms of both sites and services.) In fact, it’s not that the hardware or software of a device like the iPhone or iPad COULDN’T run a plugin like Flash, it’s that the designers made the decision that they WOULDN’T offer that plugin. This is because the software for these devices is designed to offer a certain kind of experience that addresses the very special GUI-related issues of touch and screen-size as mentioned above. The carefully created and controlled operating system’s GUI is running a web browser that is carefully created according to these principles and designed to offer a consistent user experience. If the user were to visit a website running Flash, then suddenly a rogue piece of software, in so far as these design considerations are concerned, is now running in the system. Flash was created for the web that was created for desktops and laptops. The flash that you encounter in the wild on the Internet isn’t really design for your tiny screen or touch interfaces. Flash in a browser on the iPad would lead to experiences for the user that violates Apple’s design objectives. You can’t really blame the web developers who created their websites using flash in the sense that they weren’t really expecting smartphones to come on the scene and be expected to do what people now expect them to do.

    Earlier today, you pointed to Chippy’s review of the Compaq Airlife 100. This is a device which runs Android, a smartphone OS designed to deal with the GUI-related issues mentioned above. However, the hardware of this device doesn’t really have these screen-related issues. Yes, there IS a touchscreen but it’s an optional input device and not a compulsory input device. Because the Airlife 100 is so similar to a netbook, it would be possible to “live inside a browser” in order to access the web that was built with devices of this form in mind. However, that requires you to deliver a proper operating system that features a proper web browser, and this isn’t what Android is at the moment. I think that this in turn points to precisely why Google has this “Chrome OS” brewing in the background. For devices in a more traditional form factor (“large screen”, keyboard, offscreen pointing device), most people can mostly live in a browser and so an OS that boots quickly and directly into one is at least practicable if not also practical.

    Thus, HP’s decision to bring WebOS to its slate is insightful. An OS that’s good on a small, touchscreen-only device should be even better on a bigger touchscreen-only device. Moreover, if it works well on the small touchscreen of a phone, it may also work well on the small touchscreen of a printer. However, for devices that are not small-screened and/or touchscreen-only, HP would be wise to roll-out with something that wasn’t designed specifically in response to these GUI issues. After all, Compaq is just part of HP, and there’s no reason to think that WebOS on a netbook is going to any compellingly different than Android on a smartbook. That said, WebOS is an ideal starting point from which HP can derive such a solution. Linux really is a plausible way forward.

    1. Enlightenment (e17) is a graphical environment under Linux that scales from tiny (via the Illume profile) to normal better than almost any other. In this way, some people (not me) do already live your dream of one OS to rule them all.

    2. Why? Does it really matter what the OS is, as long as the user interface is the same or close? If I click the same icon in the same place to do the same task on different devices, does it matter what the OS code behind the interface is? I don’t require that all cars I drive have the same parts inside, just that they have a steering wheel, gas pedal, and shifter in similar places with same functions….

  3. Funny that people are open to those peculiarities on a tablet yet not on a netbook/smartbook (let alone even a regular desktop/laptop). I guess that’s why we’ll never see flying cars for the mass market. 😉

  4. There are a few things to look at here:
    (1) HP (in my opinion) will still come out with the SLATE running Windows 7. Up until 3 weeks ago they were still coming out with reports and updates about the SLATE. They have lots of money and time invested in the SLATE and probably will try to recoup some of that.
    (2) There is rumor that HP is also making a smaller version (6 inch) of the SLATE nick named the HALF-PINT. This is rumored to be running Android OS. It’s possible that it could be swapped to run WebOS.
    (3) We have the rumor of the HP HURRICANE to be released in Q3. This is rumored to be running WebOS instead of the Windows 7.
    I think that HP will decide to do all 3. The reasons being are that they have lots of money and time invested in the SLATE and they realize they need something on the market as soon as possible. This will help them recoup some of the money invested. It will also help bring in some of the people out there who want a FULL OPPERATING SYSTEM and not a phone based OS.
    They probably see a need to bring a smaller more portable version to the market (but not to be mistaken for a phone…. hence the HP HALF-PINT). If this is running WebOS, this will be two fold. (1) it will bring a phone operating system to market for HP and more importantly (2) this will give WebOS a few months to have the APPs developed before the HP HURRICANE is released onto the market.
    At that time HP will have a full version, fully integrated SLATE type device on market that will be able to compete with the iPad for market share.

    As of now, iPad is ahead of the game with the iPhone OS only in the APPs department. HP needs some time to develop and test the HURRICANE. HP also needs to get something on the market as soon as possible at the same time trying to recoup some of the money that was invested in the SLATE.
    This is why I think that HP will do all three.

      1. Well, HP CEO confirmed the development of the WebOS Slate device (what many believe will be named) the HURRICANE.
        A few days later, HP VP of Taiwan has confirmed that the Slate (running Windows7) is still alive and well **BUT** the release date may be pushed back till October.
        So that confirms 2 of the 3. So lets keep our ear to the ground and wait for more info to come out about the HALF-PINT.

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