More than a year after its introduction, Apple's iPad continues to dominate a tablet market that has grown crowded with a variety of would-be rivals. Most of these are Android tablets like Samsung's Galaxy Tab and Motorola's Xoom. (The Xoom became the launch vehicle for the tablet-optimized version of Android, better known as Honeycomb.)
The next challenger prepping to go toe-to-toe with the iPad is HP's TouchPad, which was announced and demoed in February; it is expected to ship July 1 -- along with a significant update to the webOS mobile operating system originally developed by Palm.
WebOS didn't see much out-of-the-gate success -- blame the limited launch with Sprint and an ad campaign that many found bizarre, including commercials dubbed "Reincarnation," "Go With the Flow" and "Read my Mind" -- and the platform languished a bit before HP bought Palm last year.
Initially, HP was quiet about its webOS plans, indicating only that it would bring webOS technology to other products such as its printers. (Palm Pre devices also got the operating system.) Then in February, a TouchPad announcement indicated that HP has plans for webOS that go far beyond printers and a single smartphone. HP has developed two new webOS handsets: the diminutive Veer, which launched earlier this year on AT&T, and the Pre3. More important, HP has developed a tablet version of webOS for the TouchPad and plans to bring webOS to PCs as an alternative to Windows.
All of which raises the question: Can webOS and the TouchPad succeed where others have failed in competing with Apple's iOS and the iPad? Going beyond the iPad, can the Veer and Pre3 gain a significant share of the smartphone market? And is webOS viable as an alternative to iOS, Android or BlackBerry handsets?
What webOS brings
Despite its small market share, webOS 2.x has a lot of innovative features.
WebOS doesn't include a home screen in the same sense as iOS, Android and the BlackBerry operating system. Instead, it includes a launcher with common applications and a pop-up view of all installed apps.
The primary display (when you're not using a particular application) is a view of app thumbnails known as cards that can be easily cycled through and selected. Screens from individual apps can be displayed as individual cards. In addition to simply displaying every active app or screen, webOS lets you stack cards together in the same way you'd stack pieces of paper together on your desk.
This approach is extremely intuitive, letting you immediately switch between commonly used apps and allowing you to organize cards for specific tasks that you want to handle together, such as emails and/or texts. It also offers much of the same functionality as Android widgets or the live previews of Honeycomb's home screen. By doing away with the home screen and focusing on apps and tasks, webOS focuses more on getting things done than on system navigation.
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Like Android, webOS offers a global search box that is always accessible in card view, making it easy to search for email messages, contacts, Web pages or apps. Apple offers something similar with a search screen attached to the iOS home screen, but it's not quite as ubiquitous and accessible.
WebOS relies on cloud-based syncing and backup to HP's servers using a profile that's created the first time you activate a webOS device. This is a huge benefit over Android's cloud-sync-without-backup approach and Apple's sync-and-backup-via-iTunes mechanism -- though that will finally change for iOS users once iOS 5 is out this fall. At the moment, the webOS method may well be the most worry-free option on the market. The same profile is used for accessing the webOS App Catalog and downloading apps.
One downside, particularly on unlocked Pre2 handsets, is that you must create a profile on activation -- and the initial creation must be done over a carrier's network, not via Wi-Fi. Hopefully, HP will make immediate profile creation optional or at least allow configuration of basic device settings during the first use process.
Other webOS pluses
WebOS has probably the best notification system among smartphone platforms at the moment. It certainly outpaces Apple's dated notification system (which stops whatever you're doing until you view or ignore whatever app sent the notification -- and if you ignore a notification, it simply disappears never to be seen again). It's also a slight step up from Android's notification bar in overall look and feel (though it is functionally similar). Again, iOS 5 will help Apple catch up when it's released.
Like the iPhone, webOS handsets have the benefit of being largely standardized and produced by the same company that develops the operating system. This offers tighter integration and removes the issues of fragmentation that have emerged with Android.
It also allows HP to control the system update process more tightly than has been possible with Android's update process, where manufacturers and carriers both vet each update, resulting in delays; or with Windows Phone 7 (WP7), which had update delays caused by carriers.
WebOS, like Android and WP7, is also designed to aggregate content from a variety of sources, including personal email accounts, common Web-based services like Gmail, social networks including Facebook and LinkedIn, and Microsoft Exchange. The approach, dubbed Synergy, lets users view content from all sources in one place. Conversations that span multiple services -- like email, text messages and Facebook -- can be viewed as a single thread regardless of the service. That's a nice plus over some mobile platforms, particularly Apple's current setup.
Finally, webOS relies largely on Web technologies to power its apps. This means that any mobile Web developer can easily get up to speed on the development environment (an approach Microsoft is copying with its new Windows 8 interface and apps). This offers tremendous potential for app development, though the small user base hasn't yet attracted the number of developers that iOS and Android have.
The new TouchPad
The TouchPad weighs 1.6 pounds and sports a 9.7-in. screen that's just slightly smaller than the one in the iPad. It has a front-facing camera and internal speakers, and it runs on a 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon "dual-CPU" processor. In overall form factor, it's very similar to Apple's tablet. And it will ship with webOS 3 -- a release optimized for the tablet, à la Honeycomb -- which will have all of the features that webOS 2.x offers, plus a few more.
A couple of existing webOS features have been expanded in the move from smartphone to tablet. HP kept the same card-style interface and all its advantages while making use of the tablet's added screen real estate. The focus is still on apps displayed as cards, offering an uncluttered interface, but there's more preview capability. HP limits the view of cards onscreen at any one time rather than overwhelming users with too many details or live previews.
Similarly, the notification system benefits from extra space, even though it doesn't offer much in the way of added functionality. On tablets, the webOS and Android notification systems are very similar (as is the notification system in Apple's upcoming iOS 5).
Like other iPad competitors, the TouchPad will support Flash and will offer hardware acceleration of Flash content and all Web rendering. It's an advantage over the iPad, but the real question is whether the acceleration will be enough to overcome the general inadequacy of Flash on mobile devices.
The TouchPad will include a touch-to-share capability with other webOS devices. This allows a user to send and receive text or MMS messages and to place calls from the TouchPad even in Wi-Fi-only models. (The first models will be Wi-Fi only; models that run on 3G or 4G phone networks are expected to follow.)
The touch-to-share capability will also allow users to easily share URLs between the TouchPad and other webOS devices, and it will probably be expanded to support sharing of other types of content. It isn't clear whether this feature will extend to existing webOS handsets like the Veer or Pre2 or be specific to the Pre3 and later devices.
Printing has largely been a challenge for tablets and other mobile devices. Apple offers AirPrint for iOS, but only for a limited number of printer models (ironically, all from HP). Third-party solutions like the outstanding Printopia for Mac OS X can fill the gap for many users, but they may not be appropriate in workplace settings because they require a computer to serve as a print server for the iPad.
On the other hand, it's no surprise that the HP TouchPad will offer seamless printing capabilities, at least to HP's printers. This may not be a big selling point for all users, but it should be extremely attractive to business customers.
Pricing and branding
The TouchPad's pricing will mirror Apple's 16GB and 32GB Wi-Fi-only iPads at $499 and $599, respectively. Mirroring the iPad's form factor and price points allows HP to make a true head-to-head comparison with Apple's tablet. The price point also matches those of many 10-in. Android tablets, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, the Toshiba Thrive and the Motorola Xoom -- though the Xoom doesn't offer a 16GB option -- and the 7-in. PlayBook by BlackBerry maker RIM.
A final advantage for the TouchPad should be brand awareness. HP is a trusted, well-known brand, particularly in business and enterprise circles. That could give the TouchPad a boost, particularly if HP builds mobile device management into the webOS 3 as well as or better than Apple did in iOS 4.
Many IT managers are likely to see the HP brand, its enterprise-friendly solutions road map and familiar enterprise sales teams as a big advantage over Apple's iPad or any Android tablets. Apple is building more enterprise support into its products, but still doesn't reach out to enterprises the way other IT vendors do.
Brand awareness is, of course, one of the big advantages the BlackBerry PlayBook has, though it's undercut by the device's limitations. It's also one advantage that the Android-powered Cisco Cius will have when it ships.
Other 'iPad killers'
The TouchPad is the latest of several "iPad killers" to hit the market, although the others haven't found much success in the consumer or even business markets.
For example, despite high expectations, sales of the Xoom have paled in comparison to iPad sales, which topped 1 million within a month of Apple's introduction of the tablet in April 2010. A lot of reasons have been bandied about for the Xoom's slow start: its higher price tag (and the requirement that Verizon service must be activated on its 3G model, which was the first model on the market), the belief that Honeycomb was rough around the edges despite some innovative features, an ad campaign aimed more at gadget lovers than consumers, and the lack of Android apps specifically created for use with Honeycomb or on a tablet.
Clearly, while Honeycomb has some appealing features -- a home screen widgets, live preview of apps and a well-designed notification system that Apple is imitating in iOS 5 -- Android tablets have yet to gain anything close to the critical mass of the iPad.
Then there's RIM's PlayBook tablet. It has the BlackBerry brand that appeals to the corporate world, impressive hardware specs and a compelling Web experience that includes Flash. (As with many mobile devices, though, Flash doesn't exactly shine on the PlayBook.)
But, as reviewers have noted, the PlayBook OS seems unfinished and there are few apps for it. The PlayBook doesn't even ship with a standard set of business tools like email and calendaring apps. Yes, some of these features, along with access to corporate data, become available when the PlayBook is tethered to a BlackBerry. But that kind of setup is clunky at best.
Not surprisingly, RIM is courting Android developers by allowing Android apps to be modified to run on the device without being completely rewritten. Whether that will help bolster sagging PlayBook sales is unclear.
Of course, RIM has its own share of problems unrelated to the PlayBook. Earlier this month, it announced job cuts, delays in product shipments and a reduced earnings forecast.
Final TouchPad thoughts
Whatever its ultimate ambition, HP is taking webOS very seriously. And the company is already looking ahead at larger enterprise needs such as client management, ease of provisioning and deployment, and maintenance processes. This bodes well on all fronts. If HP is that forward-thinking, it stands to reason that a lot of enterprise needs will be met in the initial webOS 3 release that ships on the TouchPad.
Combine that with an OS that offers a lot of attractive features in its own right and a device that could easily be mistaken for an iPad, and you get a tablet with a lot of market potential. If HP does enterprise features well, this could give IT departments a strong case for choosing the TouchPad as an iPad alternative.
In any case, with HP showing such obvious ambitions and an apparent commitment to ship the TouchPad as a product that is fully polished on the day it launches, the TouchPad has the potential to blow Android tablets and the PlayBook out of the water. And maybe, just maybe, it will offer Apple some real competition.
Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).