Five things we DO know about webOS

Palm Inc.’s Pre smart phone, unveiled the recent Consumer Electronics Show, will be the first model based on Palm’s new mobile platform, webOS.

“Nowadays, it’s more about the operating system than it is about the hardware,” said Mark Tauschek, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group. “It’s really what’s in the OS and the capabilities that are going to drive the success of these devices.”

webOS is a key feature of the phone. Although few have had the opportunity to use the operating system first-hand, the OS holds significant promise for the enterprise market.

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Palm was unavailable for comment on webOS at press time, but here is what we know about its features for business users.

Simplified scheduling, messaging and contact management

If the operating system can do the kinds of things that they’re talking about doing, such as integrating personal and work contacts so there’s no overlap or duplication, enterprise users can have the best of both worlds, said Tauschek.

Integration and syncing are provided through Palm Synergy, which merges calendars, contacts and messages from various applications.

Calendars can be viewed individually, toggled through or layered into one.

Address books also are linked into a single view.

“For example, if you have the same contact listed in your Outlook, Google and Facebook accounts, Synergy recognizes that they’re the same person and links the information, presenting it to you as one listing,” explains the Palm Pre press release.

When a contact is updated on the Pre, Synergy will also update the associated accounts and/or messaging applications on your PC and the Web.

Conversations with a specific individual are displayed as a single thread, regardless of whether the messages are text or IM-based.

A list of compatible calendar and IM applications is not yet available.

“A lot of folks are recognizing in enterprise today that you have to have the capability to bridge the texting, IM, calendaring, events, Webinars, etc. with your business schedule.” Said Michael Rozender, principal of Grimsby, Ont.-based Rozender Consultants International. “The operating system seems to be built very much to accommodate multi-tasking capabilities. It really recognizes the link between work and personal life.”

Searching yields greater results

The universal search feature seeks results as you type the word. The search begins with contacts and applications, then moves to corporate exchange databases and the Web.

This instant searching capability could be of real value, said Rozender.

“We’re interested in gathering information [on an individual] sometimes before we contact them, before we express our interest or lack thereof,” he said. “We basically are wanting to get that information coming to us from all kinds of different angles and this device and this operating system seems to make it relatively easy to use like that,” he said.

No interruptions from outsiders

Notifications of incoming calls, texts, emails and instant messages appear in a bar at the bottom of the screen without interrupting your current activity on the device.

Applications support multi-tasking

Applications remain active in webOS and users can run multiple applications at the same time.

Intuitive interface

“One of my favourite expressions is, ‘Content may be king, but the interface is everything,’” Rozender said. “This has some great interface capabilities.”

The user interface mimics playing with a deck of cards. Users can “instinctively” from one application to another, rearrange or throw applications away using card-playing gestures on the touchscreen.

The known unknowns: these are the things we know we don’t know

What we don’t know is what sort of security features it will have and which – if any – carriers will offer it in Canada.

“We don’t know how good that will be in the Palm Pre and the webOS.,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see.”.

Developer following also in question.

“Clearly, we’ve seen the secrets to success moving forward for these high-level operating systems and it’s around the developer following,” said IDC Corp. senior research analyst Ryan Reith in an interview with Computer World Canada’s Rafael Ruffolo.

Pricing and availability

The Pre is scheduled for release in the U.S. on the Sprint network in the first half of 2009. According to Rozender, shipment could very easily slip to the second half of the year. “It sounds very nebulous to me, which tells me that it’s obviously still fairly well away from production,” he said.

Tauschek speculates a May or June release date in the U.S., with the Pre coming to Canada the following month. The first version will be CDMA, which means it will probably be available through Telus and Bell, he said.

Palm hasn’t confirmed whether the Pre is coming to Canada.

Pricing information is also unavailable. “Palm sort of said it’s going to be priced very competitively, so I suspect it will probably be $149 on a three-year contract in Canada, two-year contract in the U.S.,” said Tauschek.

The competition

“Even though a future-announced product seems to have some attractive new features the others don’t have, we can expect the others to play catch up,” added Rozender. Apple may release a next-generation iPhone in the same time frame and RIM upgrade the Storm, he suggested.

Competition from Google’s Android operating system is also expected. “We can expect Android to definitely be a popular smartphone operating system environment. It already is for developers. The kits are readily available, it’s relatively easy to develop products in a very short time frame, so for business-enabled mobility applications, the question mark is whether the Pre webOS environment will be in any way more attractive than Android,” said Rozender.

The Pre includes Outlook EAS for access to corporate Microsoft Exchange servers, which opens the door to enterprise use.

“End users in the enterprise will often drive adoption of mobile devices into the enterprise,” Tauschek said. “If end users as consumers really like the device and it’s enterprise-capable, then they’ll pick it up just based on that and really, that’s what happened with the iPhone.”

But the iPhone’s dependence on iTunes is a downside to enterprise adoption, according to Rozender. “Try and find me a CIO who wants to embrace iTunes as his basic operating system enabler,” he said.

Palm made a big impact nearly a decade ago with the introduction of the Palm Organizer, Rozender said. “That was a very popular product here in Canada, supported by a lot of enterprise customers,” he said.

“Palm does have a respectable name…even though it’s fallen into disuse or disfavour, it could make a comeback. However, that’s not an easy thing to do in the very fast moving technology marketplace and especially in the smartphone industry,” said Rozender.

“I said ‘Palm’s going to need a miracle here’ to sort of save themselves and I think they have almost come up with that miracle with webOS…everything I’m hearing and seeing is this is the only operating system that even sort of gives the iPhone a run for its money,” said Tauscheck.

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