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Despite an impressive debut two years ago for the Palm Pre, the smartphone’s slick webOS software was hampered by a poor keyboard and questionable build quality and soon largely forgotten. Flash-forward to Wednesday, and Palm’s new owners at HP have thrown back the curtain on the second coming of webOS, now ready to take on iOS and Android on both smartphones as well as the tablet platform.
After years of reigning supreme in the mobile space, Palm lost their way several years ago in the wake of the one-two punch of Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android. First unveiled at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, the Palm Pre and its slick webOS software looked ready to take on the competition -- but that day never came.
Despite glowing reviews for webOS (but less so for the Pre hardware itself), Palm seemed to again lose their way, even as both iOS and Android continued to gain traction. After losing early momentum, rumors began to swirl that Palm would be sold, and sure enough, last year HP swooped in and purchased the company, primarily with an eye on the innovative webOS operating system that had made such a splash only a year earlier.
On Wednesday, HP’s Palm division, headed up by former Apple executive Jon Rubinstein, fired back with a trio of webOS-based devices, including a 10-inch tablet called the HP TouchPad as well as small and medium offerings with the HP Veer and the HP Pre 3 (no more Palm branding, it seems). Here’s a look at the next wave of webOS devices and how they stack up against iOS.
HP Palm Senior Vice President Jon Rubinstein took the stage Wednesday in San Francisco to first unveil the new HP Veer, which the company describes as a “full-featured smartphone with slide-out keyboard, about the size of a credit card.” The tiny smartphone features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 7230 processor running at 800MHz with 8GB of storage, HSPA+, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The smallest member of the webOS family will also feature an accelerometer, proximity and light sensors, with the diminutive Veer debuting in the spring, coupled with new webOS 2.2 software.
For the mid-sized webOS customer, HP has unveiled the Pre 3, which loses its classic Palm branding. The latest member of the Pre family will come in two versions -- one packing HSPA+ for GSM carriers and a second EVDO Rev. A “World Phone” model for everyone else. Available with 8GB or 16GB of storage, the new Pre 3 will also feature 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8x55 1.4GHz processor. In addition to the same accelerometer, proximity and light sensors found on the Veer, the Pre 3 also adds a compass.
The Pre 3 also kicks things up a significant notch by adding a large QWERTY keyboard (which appears to be a huge improvement over the two original models), gesture area and a 3.6-inch 480x800 WVGA display. The refreshed flagship model will easily handle HD video and also features a five-megapixel rear camera with autofocus and LED flash as well as a forward-facing camera for video calling.
“This phone is built for serious speed, and serious fun,” Rubinstein explained prior to announcing the bad news -- the webOS 2.2-packing Pre 3 won’t be available until this summer, when it will likely go toe-to-toe with Apple’s iPhone 5.
Taking a page from Apple’s playbook, HP and Palm moved on to the main course, introducing the TouchPad, a 9.7-inch webOS tablet weighing only 1.6 pounds and a mere 13.7mm thick. The 1024x768 TouchPad is notable, since most of Apple’s current Android-based rivals for the tablet throne have gone with a seven-inch form factor, which Apple CEO Steve Jobs and COO Tim Cook have famously dismissed. Apparently, HP agrees.
“This is the first in the webOS TouchPad family,” Rubinstein announced. “For the first time, webOS is on a device that lets the intuitive nature shine through.”
The TouchPad is “screaming fast,” featuring the latest dual-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon CPU from Qualcomm, with either 16GB or 32GB of storage and twice the RAM of last year’s Pre 2. A 1.3 megapixel front-facing webcam enables video calling, while the stereo speakers have been enhanced with Beats Audio technology. 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR also come standard, along with a gyroscope, accelerometer and compass. The TouchPad will introduce webOS 3.0 when it ships this summer.
Rubinstein wasn’t afraid to get his digs in at rival Research in Motion, who have recently been showing off their PlayBook, which appears to be heavily modeled after Palm’s webOS functionality. “Some of the work in the industry shows we have a lot of fans of webOS,” Rubinstein quipped.
Much like the recent Android 3.0 preview, the TouchPad borrows liberally from Apple’s iOS when it comes to the paneled e-mail application included with webOS, but builds upon Palm’s impressive notification system, which Apple would do well to copy themselves.
Of course, the TouchPad eschews the hardware keyboard in favor of a virtual touchscreen model, which appears similar in functionality to both iOS and Android. Among the features of the software are compatibility with QuickOffice, Google Docs, Dropbox and Box.net as well as VPN and wireless printing, which will certainly entice HP’s business users.
Promising “the full web,” the TouchPad features Adobe Flash, also bringing games, books, newspapers, magazine subscriptions, movies, TV shows and “sync’d music collections” to the table.
HP will be rolling out some handy accessories for the TouchPad, including a lightweight case and ultraslim wireless keyboard as well as a Touchstone-enabled stand, which offers conductive charging for any webOS-based product -- simply rest your TouchPad on the stand to charge, no docking required.
The Touchstone also offers the ability to wirelessly share information between such devices. Among the “touch to share” possibilities are sharing a URL just by tapping devices together (similar to the Bump app on iOS and Android), receive text messages or answer phone calls on your TouchPad and even start reading a website or blog on the TouchPad, then tap your webOS smartphone to take it with you on the go.
Since the debut of the original Palm Pre two years ago, Palm has been hyping Synergy, which allows webOS users to collect all of their data in one place, as well as create an account on one device and instantly sync it to other devices just by logging in, similar to what Apple has done with MobileMe.
One of the key areas where webOS excels over iOS and Android rivals has always been with true multitasking, and never has that been more true than with the TouchPad’s super-sized interface. “Multitasking was not an afterthought, it was a design principal from day one,” proclaimed HP’s Director of Product Management Sachin Kansal during a demo of the new devices, clearly a shot across the bow at Apple’s iOS.
HP and Palm have also solved some common gesture problems, including selecting more than one item at a time. Thanks to the gesture area on webOS devices, you now simply touch and then tap to select more than one item at a time -- hopefully Apple is paying attention to little things like this for iOS 5 this year.
Notifications are one area of iOS frequently cited as a downside with Apple’s mobile products. webOS pretty much nailed it out of the gate with the original Palm Pre, and they’ve managed to improve on it further with the TouchPad, where notifications drop down from a top status bar, where you can easily act on them or hide them for later.
webOS also appears ready to tackle the thorny issue of Adobe Flash video -- during a demo of the TouchPad, HP showed a clip from Kung-Fu Panda with exceptionally smooth playback while streaming.
HP is finally getting serious about their third-party developers for the webOS platform with the new Palm App Catalog. Among the apps featured on Palm’s website are 3D games such as Tiger Woods PGA Tour, Battleship and Scrabble, Entertainment apps including People magazine and Flixster, Social Networking apps including Facebook for Palm and Gowalla, Productivity favorites such as Evernote, News apps including The New York Times and many others in 12 key categories.
And for anyone thinking of jumping ship from iOS or Android, fear not -- Angry Birds is also making the leap to webOS.
Of course, HP’s new TouchPad will be attractive to folks who like to read, and the company is making it easy for users to subscribe and purchase such content, with both Sports Illustrated and Amazon Kindle apps demoed.
Unfortunately, while HP appears to have hit a lot of the right notes with tech fans after Wednesday’s event, they could be making the same mistake that Palm did after unveiling the first Pre in January, 2009 -- that is, waiting almost half a year to actually ship the product.
While the tiny HP Veer will be available sometime in the spring, you’ll have a longer wait to buy a Pre 3 or TouchPad, neither of which will be available until this summer -- and even then, the TouchPad will be Wi-Fi only, with 3G and 4G models promised for even later. By that point, Apple will have no doubt long since started shipping its iPad sequel and will most certainly have an iPhone 5 (and accompanying iOS 5) available come June.
It remains to be seen how HP and Palm will fare against a veritable army of new Android tablets marching onto the scene in the coming months as well as Apple’s own iPad 2 -- but today should at the very least give webOS fans hope that HP’s buyout of Palm wasn’t in vain, and that a nice infusion of cash will hopefully buy the fledgling mobile operating system enough time to get off the sidelines and into the game.
Follow this article’s author, J.R. Bookwalter on Twitter