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Tech for Personal Growth


Palm OS → webOS 1.x → webOS 2.x → ?
About 3 min reading time

HP/Palm's presentation yesterday showed some solid hardware and innovative user interfaces. The new Enyo framework presented to developers is in position to make webOS live up to its initial promise of developing like developing for the web, rather than merely making use of web technologies.

But I'm worried about how we get from the current webOS users, apps and developers to the bright future painted by HP.

Apps become powerful when users enter a lot of data in them - and they'll only do that if they expect to use the apps for a long time.

This can be seen with some Palm OS apps, such as FileMaker. Users have YEARS of data accumulated, and won't move to another platform without it. Currently, they nurse aging Palm OS hardware, and bemoan that no other platform will let them use their data.

Palm promised the ability to run Palm OS apps in an emulator under webOS. Classic from Motion Apps was that emulator, and technically it works well. But a finger isn't as precise as a stylus, making Palm OS apps a chore to use, even with the clever zoom-in-and-out. The rating of Classic hovers around 3 out of 5 stars -- a poor showing for a product with so much work behind it.

Then, last Fall, Motion Apps announced that HP/Palm was refusing to include the necessary files in webOS 2.0 to allow Classic to run. Users of Palm OS software were left facing a dead end - apparently due to HP/Palm's intransigence, rather than technical limitations.

Old platforms can't be supported forever, but if they aren't supported until there's a viable replacement, users won't trust their backers. What lesson should Palm OS users draw about HP/Palm's commitment to them, from this?

Early webOS adopters took a leap of faith and signed two-year contracts, believing that 3rd-party apps would come. After a short 16 months in public, HP/Palm announced at the NYC Dev day that Mojo (the framework most webOS apps are based on) was obsolete, and not guaranteed to be included on webOS devices after 2011. As a webOS user, should you buy apps now, that won't work next year? Should you stay with a platform that declares your current apps obsolete, months before any replacement could possibly arrive?

Early webOS developers took a leap of faith and learned the intricacies of Mojo, a framework new even to seasoned JavaScript developers. While amateur developers contribute many worthwhile apps, large powerful apps that make a device more than a toy, and users more than mayflies flitting from platform to platform, usually come from professional developers. Developers who need to make a profit. It's hard to make a profit on a platform that's only around for 16 months. While Mojo apps will remain runnable through the end of 2011, app sales are primarily made to users new to the platform. And large, expensive apps do particularly poorly when their platform is obsolete. So, sales of powerful Mojo apps have tanked (and lighter apps aren't doing so well, either). As a developer, what lesson should you draw, about the profitability of developing for webOS?

Yesterday, we learned that webOS 2.x will not be available over-the-air (OTA) to devices that shipped with webOS 1.x (almost every device not possessed by a developer). While HP/Palm has promised a "path to webOS 2" for owners, no details are available. Will this be a webOS Doctor, which erases 3rd-party data and requires a desktop computer? This is similar to the upgrade mechanism for Palm OS, a mechanism that most users did not use. Will the path be credit toward a new device? No one knows.

Microsoft has excelled at creating fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about it's competitors. HP/Palm has done a surprising job of creating FUD about their own product. HP/Palm appears to pin its hopes on one exciting future technology after another, with inadequate concern for current users.

None of these problems are beyond remedy. The Palm OS ROM needed for Classic, and the Mojo framework, may consume valuable space on new devices, but there's no visible reason they can't be made optional downloads for those who need them. And HP/Palm can commit to keeping them available until users have real alternatives. Users would see that HP/Palm cares about their long-term needs. Developers could have confidence that apps they develop now can be sold for years. Developers of existing apps would be motivated to improve them and convert them to use Enyo.

There are many Palm OS apps that have committed user bases, even today. Users who bought one Palm device after another. Users that promoted Palm OS to everyone they knew. How many webOS apps can boast that today?

Good design and a lot of work has gone into webOS 2 (and 3!) There's a bright future out there for webOS -- if the transitions of users, apps, and developers are properly smoothed. And HP/Palm is the one that has to do it.