Yesterday, we learned that HP is discontinuing support for Web OS devices, which means no more WebOS phones and TouchPad tablets. (Note: HP bought Palm last year and ditched the Palm name on the Pre, Pixi, and WebOS) First, if you currently have a WebOS device this news doesnt mean anything is going to happen to those existing products. It simply means your next smartphone is probably not going to be a Pre, Pixi, or Veer.
Much of the reporting on the demise of the HP WebOS devices focuses on what it means for the industry going forward and speculates on just how many smartphone OS the market can handle. Id rather take a look back at just what Palm devices did for the mobile industry and how we have a lot of the usability we have today is thanks to a little product called the Palm Pilot.
It started with a little PDA
Back in 1996, Palm (at the time a division of US Robotics) came out with its first PDA, the Palm Pilot. It was definitely different than the other digital organizers currently available. Its pocket-friendly size, four main buttons for navigation (sound familiar?), and a unique handwriting-based input method called Graffiti set it apart. At that time, people were carrying around fairly large devices with full QWERTY keyboards made by companies like Casio. In fact, the only real competition the Pilot had was another device called the Psion Series III Organizer. In case you dont remember what happened to that product, you can still find remnants of it in the Symbian smartphone OS. There was also another product trying to find a place in consumers lives, Apples Newton. (For more information on the Newton, read this story on Gizmodo its a great summary.)
In time, those products disappeared from the market, but not the Palm Pilot. That device continued to evolve. We didnt know it in the late 90s, but the Palm Pilot gave us a glimpse at the type of products we use today. This is probably a result of how it was created. I remember attending a press event for Handspring (the first company to license the Palm OS and was later acquired by PalmOne) where Jeff Hawkins told the story of how he carried a block of wood around in his pocket while developing the Palm Pilot. As he walked around, he would think about what he wanted that piece of wood to do. That speaks to UI on many levels. For example, the first Palm Pilot measured 4.7 x 3.2 x 0.7 inches and weighed 5.7 ounces. That kind of set the standard for the acceptable size of a mobile device. Today, we have tons of smartphones with 4.3-inch touchscreen displays touting a similar size and weight. Take the HTC EVO 3D, for example, it measures 5.0 x 2.6 x 0.5 inches and weighs 6 ounces. Thats not too far off from the first Palm Pilot. It goes without say that the EVO 3D is a lot sexier than the Palm Pilot, but innovation has to start somewhere.
We can also thank Palm for the ability to update an OS and syncing a mobile device with a PC via USB cable (features available on the first Palm Pilot). Today, a lot of thats done over the air, except for iPhone its still done by a USB connection. There were also tons of apps you could purchase for a Palm product (online or at retail). In many cases you could transfer the apps to newer Palm devices. Can you say Android Market or iTunes for iPhone apps?
Making a Connection
Before we started seeing smartphones, we were attaching data modems to mobile devices like the Palm Pilot and Windows CE PDAs. These were far from elegant solutions and often added more bulk than function. Data speeds were slower than a dial-up connection. This showed us that consumers wanted to use these mobile devices to connect to e-mail and even the Internet. Around this time BlackBerry was just a messaging device and you knew you were important if you got a BlackBerry at work. For all of us covering the mobile industry these were big milestones. Cell phones were about to evolve and they were going to have a lot more than a numeric keypad. In 2002, we saw the first Treo smartphone running the Palm OS.
Its inevitable that technologies change and evolve and companies make more innovations. In 2007, the world was introduced to the iPhone and later that year consumers learned about another smartphone OS called Android. Palm did its best to keep up by redoing its OS completely and introduced the Palm Pre running the new WebOS in 2009 at CES. At the time, the Pres specs were right and the new UI was intuitive. There were only a few real problems that held it back: there were simply not enough apps and you couldnt really use old Palm apps on the new WebOS, it didnt come to market soon enough, and lets not forget what CNETs Bonnie Cha wrote about the press experience with the Pre. Not allowing people to touch the device did add to the hype and the mystery, but not in a good way.
Although the Palm Pre and the WebOS had a lot going for it the timing just wasnt right. A year later, HP bought Palm and perhaps that was the beginning of the end for Palm smartphones. Maybe it was earlier. Its hard to say, but it doesnt mean its the end for the WebOS. HP still plans on doing something with it and well just have to see if that OS will innovate another industry.
I, for one, am sad to see the phones go, but let's take a moment and say thanks for all that Palm really did for the mobile industry. I dont think wed have the elegant smartphones we have today without its contribution.