In the family of mobile operating systems, Apple’s iOS is the eldest child with a wall full of trophies, while Google’s Android is its younger sibling, trying to prove to dad that iOS didn’t get all of the good genetics.
Yet, there is a forgotten middle child: HP’s webOS. First developed by Palm as a successor to Palm OS, HP’s purchase of Palm didn’t create as many opportunities for market adoption as originally anticipated. Since webOS’ introduction in 2009, we’ve only seen a handful of devices with the company’s mobile operating system. Within the same period, multiple manufacturers collectively launched a slew of Android-based phones.
The tablet scene also reflects this disparity. Although Motorola’s Xoom was released in February 2011, it represented the first real threat to Apple’s iPad. Previous Android-based tablets all relide on Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), which was originally designed for smartphones. The Xoom introduced us to Android 3.0 (Honeycomb), a version of Google’s mobile operating system specifically optimized for the larger-screen tablets.
HP is arriving to this party a little late. Its solution, dubbed the HP TouchPad, is an attempt to carve out a portion of the growing tablet market by offering a second alternative to iOS.
Meet HP’s TouchPad
So far, first-generation tablets have tended to be both heavier and chunkier than their successors. The iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab 10.1 are great examples of refined aesthetics only after a vendor nailed down core functionality. HP seems to suffer those same first-gen woes, though. At 1.6 pounds, the TouchPad is one of the heaviest tablets available. But this represents HP’s first effort in the tablet market, and we’re willing to overlook its heft.
All of the Android tablets that we’ve seen thus far employ a wide-aspect (16:10) display, whereas the iPad uses a 4:3 ratio. As its product name suggests, Apple’s solution is most often used like a pad of paper. Reading a Web site in portrait mode on an iPad feels as natural as reading off of a clipboard.
It’s also possible to use wide-aspect tablets in portrait mode. However, you get less horizontal space to work in, making the experience a little awkward. Conversely, 16:10 works well for viewing videos, and that’s where Motorola’s Xoom and Acer’s Iconia Tab A500 really shine.
In contrast, HP specifically markets the TouchPad as a more productivity-oriented tablet, which is why it follows in Apple’s footsteps with a 4:3 screen.
While the TouchPad is supposed to be more enterprise-flavoured, the external design is a professional’s worst nightmare. Encased in glossy piano-black ABS plastic, the TouchPad’s surface has a propensity to attract fingerprints. This makes it easy for a thin layer of oil to build up, which is a minor annoyance. But business devices really should adopt a cleaner matte finish, similar to Lenovo’s ThinkPad line.
Compared to the competition, HP’s first-generation tablet shows up to this fight a little under-equipped. There is no rear-facing camera. You only get a modest 1.3 MP front-facing camera for video conferencing (via Skype, for example). And while, again, this tablet is geared toward professionals, there’s no way to output video, which is a deficiency if you want to give presentations through the device.
The no-frills design has some drawbacks. For example, the volume rocker always behaves in the same way, no matter how you’re holding the tablet. In order to increase volume, you always press away from the home button. However, with other tablets, increasing volume is always to the right or away from you. That helps make screen orientation more intuitive.
webOS 3.0: Navigation And Notifications
HP’s TouchPad comes with webOS 3.0, a version exclusive to the TouchPad. Version 2.0 is restricted to HP’s latest smartphones, but the differences are few. Overall, webOS 3.0 is similar to webOS 2.0, and more specifically optimized for the TouchPad’s larger screen. Considering that most of us don’t use HP smartphones though, webOS 3.0 is probably still foreign to most folks.
If the TouchPad is sitting idle, you need to unlock the screen by moving the yellow lock button outside the half-circle.
The touch gestures on the TouchPad are the same as every other tablet. There are taps, scrolls, pinches, and swipes. The home screen contains a task bar with shortcuts to the browser, email, calendar, messaging, photo, and video apps. The arrow icon functions as the home button; it takes you back to the Launcher menu. Up top, you see a “Just type…” search bar that you can set to your favourite search engine. But it also allows you to search for a particular program.
Once you’re in a program, pressing the home button takes you to the main screen. This is where all of the currently-open programs are displayed. You can switch between multiple programs by swiping horizontally to find the window you want, and resuming a program is as simple as tapping on its window.
The keyboards in iOS and Android feature four rows of keys. But in both operating systems, they’re basically all letters. Entering mixed input (like numbers) requires that you hit some sort of function key.
That’s not an issue for the TouchPad because of its business focus. The keyboard in webOS features five rows, with the fifth dedicated to displaying numbers. This is a welcome relief when you’re editing spreadsheets. But it also serves to make the layout more familiar to folks accustomed to desktop keyboards (another big positive for anyone finding the tablet transition difficult).
Notifications are managed beautifully in webOS. The latest alerts appear on the lock screen. Once the TouchPad is unlocked, a prompt appears with options for snoozing or dismissing.
If you’ve ignored your notifications, they start to stack up in the status bar. In order to dismiss those alerts, you simply swipe through them like a deck of cards.
HP’s App Catalog
The App Catalog is the equivalent of Apple’s App Store, structured a little differently. When you first open the App Catalog, HP Pivot pops up. It’s a monthly online magazine built into the interface that spotlights new programs and provides information on using the TouchPad.
Beyond that unique feature, the App Catalog is a straight-to-the-point shopping hub. There is no fancy artwork. Everything is sorted into categories in a column-based browser.
To buy an app, you simply click install and a prompt appears for your credit card information. HP currently only accepts MasterCard and Visa as payment methods, which is an inconvenience for those who prefer PayPal or American Express.
The Developer’s Dilemma
HP needs to be given credit where credit is due. Speaking as a developer who writes much of our custom-coded testing automation, webOS is the easiest mobile operating system to write for because it adheres to Web standards like HTML and CSS. Android comes in a close second because everything is Java-based. In comparison, Apple offers granular control over iOS programming, as the framework is object-oriented C, but this translates into a longer learning curve.
Moving forward, HP faces two problems: documentation and market share. While webOS is easy to adopt, HP provides poor documentation relative to what’s accessible via the Apple and Google developer sites. Second, market share continues to be a major reason to hold off on webOS for software developers. Programming ease means nothing when your goal is to make money. However, that requires a large base of users willing to pay for applications. That’s one reason iOS continues attracting devs, despite the intricacies of object-oriented programming.
So what comes first? The chicken or the egg? Vendors need tablet users to draw developers, but they also need developers to create apps to attract users. Ultimately, it’s HP’s job to get developers amped up. And thus far, its success has been limited as a result of getting caught in the Android/iOS crossfire. That seems to be the impetus behind the recent TouchPad sale in the U.S. However, HP needs to make that sale price permanent if it wants to really attract a following of any significant volume.
Is The TouchPad An iPad Or Xoom Competitor?
HP offers the TouchPad at a similar price compared to its competition. However, hardware acquisition isn’t the only price you’re bound to pay. A tablet purchase, as with the adoption of a personal computer, constitutes the acceptance of a specific platform. But no tablet can truly succeed without a healthy base of developers creating new apps. Even if its hardware wasn’t as sexy as it’s perceived to be, Apple would still enjoy a tremendous advantage by virtue of the ISVs publishing to its App Store. Android still has some catching up to do in that regard. And it’s a much more palpable problem for the TouchPad. Variety in the App Catalog is particularly thin.
In the end, HP’s battle has nothing to do with the hardware. It has to do with software and attracting more developers. Even if it takes four times as long to develop an app in iOS than webOS, the development community is going to follow the trail of pounds. According to a recent IHS iSuppli survey, 79.2% of tablet owners confirmed owning either an iPad or iPad 2, and 50% of those shopping for a new tablet said they would by an iPad 2. That’s what will motivate developers more than anything.
The TouchPad and its webOS represent a third contingent of business-oriented users willing to pay for third-party software in order to improve their mobile computing experience. But HP is in a tough spot. It has to face down Apple and Google, both more established in this field.
HP mitigates its disadvantage somewhat by touting a more professional billing than what iOS or Android offer. And if you’re most interested in productivity, the TouchPad is indeed a compelling contender. There are so many things that HP did right here. The interface is clean and Synergy is unbelievably useful. But some critical features, like document editing, are missing even with the latest 3.0.2 update. Quickoffice is supposedly working on this, and it is supposed to be a free upgrade, but we don’t know when it’ll become available.
Thus, professionals shopping for a productivity-oriented tablet with a 4:3 aspect ratio have two choices:
1. HP’s TouchPad, clearly intended for business use with a few missing features and a small selection of entertainment apps. Despite leaning on a purportedly more performance-oriented Snapdragon SoC, our benchmarks demonstrates less aggressive performance.
2. Apple’s iPad 2, clearly intended for consumption, but relatively well-suited for productivity. It’s thin, lightweight, and a solid performer.
Despite impressive extras like Synergy, business-specific features probably won’t be what ultimately save the TouchPad. It turns out that professionals aren’t all that different from regular consumers in what they’re able to do with the tablet form-factor. Both groups need ample choice when it comes to the software able to address their needs. The plethora of apps in Apple’s App Store is perhaps the iPad’s most significant selling point, and it could certainly be enough for businesses to consider passing on the excellent work behind Synergy. We’re not asking for hundreds of thousands of apps here. But HP should be going to market with a few hundred solid choices.
Given the state of HP’s infrastructure, HP’s asking price is high. The tablet space is very competitive, and the Android-based tablets are already struggling to battle it out amongst themselves. There’s very little wiggle room for the TouchPad to coexist, which is why execution is critical. In the near-term, HP needs a lower price and more complete software foundation. After all, a business tablet without the ability to edit documents feels lacking.
Published in @Internet Magazine, September 2011