11 Feb HP webOS event roundup.

It’s not a big secret that I’m a big fan of webOS’ design and premise. While my primary phone for daily use is an iPhone, I’ve used Android and webOS phones alike for extended periods of time and I always miss some of webOS’ interface polish. It’s simply a delight to use intensively.

Yesterday, HP (fare ye well, Palm) announced its summer device lineup, far in advance of release. Presumably, to let developers start working on apps early and show consumers they might want to hold out on getting that Android or iOS tablet. Leaving discussion about the (lack of) wisdom of announcing now and tea-leaf reading of when we might see the competition show up out of things, I want to focus on the new devices’ hardware and share some thoughts on their user interface.

The TouchPad:

Gesture Area / “Home Button”: The TouchPad actually lacks the familiar (and brilliant) Pre / Pixi ‘gesture area’, which lets you swipe left or right and up to respectably go forward or back in navigation or open the launcher for opening apps. Several employees familiar with the matter told me that in the development phase of the TouchPad, the gesture area (or having even four of them on each side of the screen) didn’t hold up as a usable solution. The real question for developers and interface designers is how going back and forth in apps is handled now. I suspect it would be a button in the UI, much like in iOS.

Panes: While some bloggers are quick to dismiss parts of the TouchPad UI as ‘rip offs’ of iPad’s, more study reveals there’s a lot of clever work in there. Personally, I never use my iPad in portrait because Mail, for instance, is barely usable without a list of emails to easily jump back and forth for triage.

The TouchPad solves this problem with ‘grabbers’ on the toolbars of each pane. The user can easily rearrange the UI layout, either showing the email content completely, or showing a both the source list and the content. Further scrolling the email content away reveals the Mail accounts, similar to the navigation stack of the emails column on iPad. It’s a clever solution that’s implemented in all multi-pane apps on the system and never locks you in to a layout.

Notifications: Obviously, the notifications UI is one of webOS’ core strengths. Not even Android handles incoming information and user notifications this elegantly. On the tablet, they settled with bringing them up in the status bar. Android (on phones) also puts notification icons in the status bar, and with the status (wifi, battery, network, alarm) icons, it quickly turns into a bar literally filled with icons and badges. This made me a bit pessimistic about the notification handling on webOS for tablets.

Fortunately, it’s actually quite great. Notifications slide in from the top, separate from the clock and status information: something like an email would come in, show sender and subject and then slide right and fade out into a subtle white email icon. The notifications get their own, clearly demarcated area in the status bar and some can even be swiped through from there:

Overall, a very nicely designed experience. Once again, iOS looks rather bad with either only using badges or tiny, yet modal dialogs interrupting your workflow.

The Pre 3: (image by Engadget)

The Pre 3 has an IPS LCD (valuable information I got loose yesterday) screen at 800×480. I am very happy that it doesn’t use (SAM)OLED technology, as in my opinion they’re a bad stopgap to solve the LCD pixel density and power usage problem. You start to wonder what kind of contracts Apple has with Sharp, considering only Sharp and Apple currently ship devices with 960×640 pixel IPS LCD displays. I bet some of the billions in cash they spend was used to buy a lot — if not all — of Sharp’s manufacturing capacity for these extremely advanced screen panels.

That out of the way, the panel on the Pre 3 is beautiful. Its viewing angles are great, the colors pop, and it has a great black point. Representatives from Palm were very pressing in letting me know the hardware wasn’t completely final, but I believe we won’t see changes to the display quality at this point.

Size-wise (I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of it next to my iPhone) it’s almost the same size as the iPhone. It’s slightly thicker but quite slim, which is a feat considering the built-in keyboard. The screen is slightly larger (3.6″) than the iPhone 4′s. There are no plans to enable an on-screen keyboard.

The Veer:

At the hands-on area it seemed the Veer is pretty much done. It’s an impressive device: it has absolutely no lagginess, the build quality is extremely impressive. Not much to say on designing for it, as it’s the device I am least interested in, but the display quality looked good: standard density (comparable to, say, the Pre / Pixi) but nice viewing angles. Nothing to write home about.

Miscellaneous Design Thoughts and answers to Twitter questions:

When you dock your webOS device (wirelessly), it goes into ‘Exhibition’ mode, which can show things like a clock, upcoming events, notifications and photo slideshows. It’s said webOS will include a feature to intelligently switch between what to show in Exhibition based on your physical location.

Touching a webOS phone and tablet lets them ‘push’ information to each other, like sharing a webpage. This is an impressive technology — I couldn’t get any answers on what is being used for this. Presumably NFC.

TouchPad can take calls and texts from webOS phones thanks to Bluetooth pairing.

No official word on it, but HP aims for ‘global availability’ of new webOS products.

No word on UI conventions for PC / Laptop webOS.

App dock icons (and dock height) for the TouchPad / Pre 3 are 63 pixels. They’re smaller on the screen of the Pre 3, obviously, due to the much higher pixel density, but an interesting bit regardless.

It seems current icon guidelines call for realistically rendered (OS X-style) app icons, glyphs in circles for toolbar icons and colored, more detailed icons for source lists and source panes.

Designing for various screen sizes is made easier through Palm’s development model and tools, which are obviously based on web technologies like CSS. With non-pixel units it’s quite easy to ensure widgets and text scale right. Apps can be built with Palm’s new ‘Enyo’ framework to scale a multi-pane tablet view to a simple one-column view on phones. Truly a ‘universal’ approach to developing applications.

And that’s all. Feel free to leave more questions in the comments.

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36 Responses

  1. 1
    S 

    Awesome, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.

  2. 2
    Matt 

    That Messaging icon looks a LOT like Hipchat’s logo.

  3. 3
    JF Martin 

    I have my personal thoughts on the TouchPad user interface (see: http://www.example.com/2011/02/birth-of-new-computer-era.html), but I must say that I really love the general graphic design of webOS, even if some parts seems to be really coming from the iPad. But I don’t really care, as soon as they offer something improved upon, I’m in!.

  4. 4
    Pataling 

    Did you hear about or see any new UI gestures, like the two finger Copy& Paste gestures supposedly leaked on PreCentral a few weeks ago?

  5. 5
    Jordan 

    Nice roundup, thanks for writing it up. The one thing I’m dying to know is if the Pre3 is coming to Sprint or not, if not I’ll probably end up moving carriers which is not ideal.

  6. 6
    Animal 

    HP has officially admitted that they are dragging their feet on plans to ship any of the WebOS products in Australia, which really calls into question the claims of ‘global availability’.
    http://delimiter.com.au/2011/02/10/no-touchpad-for-you-hp-tells-australia/

  7. 7
    Cobalt 

    Thanks for the write-up.

    Shallow note of interest : I really like the “postmodern” graphical treatment of the UI. It’s like if each major mobile operating system stemmed from a past decade: iOS would be all midcentury, Android the techno 70′s and webOS Art Deco inspired.

  8. 8
    Abdullah 

    The UI on the phones have rounded corners (like old school Mac OS) but the tablet seems to do away with this, unfortunately.

    Also, it would be good if they could enforce some standards with 3rd party app icons. They are very often inconsistant with the system icons and jar the experience. They should make icon and UI guidelines very clear and be serious about it, since the UX is what really sets webOS apart.

  9. 9
    Nick 

    webOS looks wonderful; the devices seem great. Thanks for the write up and insight, Sebastiaan.

    Based on what you’ve seen, will you be swapping your iPhone for a Pre3 in the summer, and/or trading an iPad for a TouchPad? Most people only have space for one platform in their lives, so I’m curious to see how many existing iOS users will jump ship. I’m already pretty tempted!

  10. 10
    Tom 

    When you say they aim for global availability of these products, do you mean straight away? Because the head of HP here in Australia has stated that the WebOS devices will not be here for the foreseeable future. We haven’t even got the Palm Pre here yet.

  11. 11
    Richard 

    Nice round-up. WebOS certainly looks very interesting and a great alternative to Android or Windows Phone 7. I’m happy HP are investing seriously in this platform!

  12. 12
    Jesse 

    Your comments about the Notifications on Android are somewhat incorrect – while the existing Android phones have a drag down notification bar, Google have already demonstrated that this has been revamped in Honeycomb and will be more like Growl is on the mac.
    Take a look at:
    http://androidcommunity.com/google-details-honeycombs-notification-bar-20110202/

    Either way – both Android and WebOS’s notification is light years ahead of the joke that is iOS notifications ;)

  13. 13
    marv 

    You did comment on the screens of the phones, but not the screen of the tablet. Did you have a chance to get a closer look at it? I am asking, because according to HPs data sheet, it is a 18-bit panel (which must be TN then). Viewing angles are often a problem with TN panels . I hope that’s not the case.

    Ref. “Panes”: Well, by all means, they are a rip-off. No way to deny that (not as much as combining iPod touch and iPad to TouchPad though). But then, if Apple should ever come up with a good notification system, it will certainly have something in common with Palm’s.

    What I strongly dislike about the tablet GUI is the decision to put the toolbar and buttons on the bottom (Apple has them on the top). I mostly use my iPad sitting in the lap… and apps having their buttons on the bottom (like Documents To Go) are almost unusable in this position.

  14. 14
    Andre Richards 

    @Jesse: “Either way – both Android and WebOS’s notification is light years ahead of the joke that is iOS notifications”

    I have two people in my life neither of whom are “techies” in any sense of the word and both of whom have Android-based phones and one of the results of Android’s approach to notifications is that they miss a lot of notifications, plain and simple. One of them in particular never seems to notice my text messages or phone calls and forgets to check her notification queue. They are not dumb people but neither think of their phones as something they should be constantly checking in on. I think Android’s approach (which honestly, feels engineer-designed) leaves a lot to be desired from the perspective of a non-technical user.

    I suspect that’s why Apple seems “stuck” in their current mode with iOS. I’m betting behind-the-scenes UI testing is showing that people get notifications if it’s right in your face with a modal dialog and an icon badge but tend to overlook them when it’s put on a list they’re expected to check regularly.

  15. > There are no plans to enable an on-screen keyboard.

    Whoa, really? That’s either genius – the equivalent of Apple forcing all UI controls on-screen by providing any app-accessible hardware buttons – or really stupid.

    How did you find yourself using it? Keyboard slid out to prepare for random typing, or opening and closing as needed? Any thoughts on how that felt?

  16. Sorry, that should be “by NOT providing any app-accessible hardware buttons”. Left out the important “not”.

  17. 17
    rishio 

    The tablet runs webOS 3.x where as the Pre/Veer run 2.x. Any idea if they plan to unify the OS so that the smartphones and the tablets run on 3.0? I feel as the the smartphone’s will eventually be updated to 3.0 which will do away with the rounded corners on the screen (which i don’t like) and enable a virtual keyboard which would be great in addition to a physical keyboard (give the pre the best of both worlds).

  18. 18
    James 

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the new webOS devices.

    Even though I’m an Android guy, I feel let down by what I’ve seen of Honeycomb. The UI looks really cool and futuristic, but in a forced way. It seems like a Honeycomb tablet will feel like a novelty item after a few uses. And nothing needs to be said about pre-Honeycomb tablets, of course. The Verizon store in my area has a Galaxy Tab demo unit right next to an iPad… really poor placement choice, unless they’re just trying to make the iPad look better.

    It’s a different story with webOS. The interface is breathtaking, and it seems like it could lend itself to productive activity. It feels more like a “real OS” without compromising the positives of a touch screen environment. The Touchpad’s notification area cements this feeling for me. With enough robust apps, I wouldn’t bat an eye to see webOS powering a great-looking netbook (preferably with a nice touch screen, that would be ridiculous).

    I haven’t been this excited about a tablet computer since I saw the iPad. Or (in the Pre 3) a smartphone since I saw the original Droid. Can’t wait to try it out.

  19. @Justin Reese: The TouchTab does have a virtual keyboard [1]

    [1] http://www.2ality.com/2011/02/hps-new-webos-devices-highlights.html

  20. 20
    sebastiaan 

    Axel: Justin was mentioning HP’s plans for Pre 3, not TouchPad.

  21. 21
    JM 

    Still no stats on battery life, or price. While the HP webos may seemingly have great bells and whistles, its actual battery usage/life and market price will ultimately trump everything else.

  22. 22
    brh 

    So is the Veer replacing the Pixi then? If so, looks like I’ll be out of the WebOS game before I get a chance to get in it. WebOS is nice, but so is iOS… And the only real advantage to me was that Pixi was smaller than iPhone. Veer may be small in two dimensions, but it looks thick as anything, and thick does not play well with my pockets. Also, I rather loathe phones with moving parts. If Pixi is gone, HP is out of the picture for my next phone, which is a shame…

  23. 23
    melgross 

    It was a good thing to get rid of the swipe. While I know that tech writers and geeks in general loved it, most others couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t an obvious thing to do. Even when people did know it was there, they couldn’t figure out when to use it.

    This may be hard to believe, but I saw a lot of people play with a Pre, and get confused by this. It’s understandable that they did, because it’s so unobvious, it’s not discoverable, and people don’t read manuals any more.

  24. 24
    Interwebs 

    I’ve always been disappointed that WebOS isn’t doing as well as Android, because it certainly deserves to be a success more than that joke of an OS.

    Also the way Google is just crapping Android releases out it will never be a threat to the iPhone, the attention to detail just isn’t there. Would much rather have WebOS in position number 2 so the iPhone team don’t get lazy.

  25. 25
    brh 

    melgross- all I can say is that last time I went into an AT&T store, I was with someone who had to buy a phone, etc, and I had nothing but time to play… and play I did, with all the smartphones. I had no problem with the iPhone (granted, I have used a lot of iOS devices already), no problem figuring out the Windows Phone 7 phone (forget what the hardware was), and no problem whatsoever with the Pixi. The two Android phones I tried, however, left me utterly flabbergasted (and my nerd level is hardcore *nix administration, occasional coder). Different interfaces confuse different people in different ways, I suppose. but nothing about WebOS (or the hardware) seemed terribly confusing to me.

  26. 26
    Tai 

    Thanks for the write-up.

    I’ve used WebOS in the past. It’s really tightly designed. Looking forward to taking the TouchPad and Pre3 for a spin when they become available.

    Hopefully, HP can get some momentum for WebOS developer ecosystem.

  27. 27
    BenR 

    Thanks for yoru article, it’s a great analysis of the HP’s keynote.

    As far as I’m concerned, the vision set by HPalm looks great both from an end-user and developer points of view. It’s the first time I can see myself having using a smartphone (Pre3) with a tablet (TouchPad) as there are real synergies of use/data between the two devices. Anyway, as goog as this first HP generation hardware may look, I hope HP push/communicate twice as hard on the webOS side. Speaking about the future of webOS, we’ve seen glimpses of webOS 3.0 on the TouchPad but only webOS 2.2 on the Pre3/Veer. Let’s hope that upward scalability can bring good things to the S and M sizes.

  28. 28
    David 

    Good stuff — thanks for covering it. I can’t wait to get the Pre 3 and just MAYBE the Touchpad too.

  1. 29
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