Palm charges back with WebOS

Can a new operating system help the embattled PDA vendor regain its dominant position in the handheld market?

The smartphone market is heating up. For business users in particular, smartphones are rapidly becoming the handhelds of choice -- what with Windows Mobile maintaining a solid presence, Google's Android platform on the rise, and iPhone neck and neck with Research in Motion's BlackBerry platform as the road warrior's digital accoutrement of choice.

That's great news for the mobile carriers -- and for customers -- but the big picture for mobile application developers is less clear. With smartphone OS options proliferating, it seems as if the dream of the truly cross-platform mobile apps could be receding further than ever.

[ Palm joins a crowded field of mobile offerings. Check out its competitors: "InfoWorld's guide to next-gen mobile." ]

And as if four major players weren't enough, here comes the dark horse entry in the race. Just when you thought it was safe to count Palm out, it's back, and it's bringing not just a sleek new handset but a brand-new OS to boot.

Does this embattled company really think that it can compete with the leading developer of innovative e-mail enabled handsets and three of the world's largest IT vendors at the same time?

Handhelds raised high

Here's the good news. After years of false starts and broken promises, Palm has finally realized what the pundits and analysts have been saying for years: The clock is not only ticking, but it's almost run out. I doubt that any Palm execs would go so far as to categorize the new handset, the Palm Pre, as a Hail Mary pass -- but surely even they must realize that this company won't get many more chances.

Now here's the bad news. In their infinite wisdom, Palm's marketing gurus have chosen to label the company's brand-new OS with the cringe-inducing moniker "webOS" -- complete with circa-1999 dot-com capitalization.

But let's not be too hasty to condemn that decision as mere hype. Maybe there's more to it than meets the eye.

If there's one thing that all of the modern smartphone operating systems have in common, it's that they all know better than to try to reinvent the wheel. Apple's iPhone SDK is based on Mac OS X's established Cocoa APIs, just as Microsoft based its own offering on the familiar Windows programming model. Google's Android and the BlackBerry platform, on the other hand, are both based on Java, which Sun Microsystems has been marketing aggressively for use on mobile devices.

Even more than these low-level applications and frameworks, however, increasingly the common denominator for mobile applications development -- for business, in particular -- is the Web. We're seeing the same trend with desktop applications, with the rise of SaaS applications such as Salesforce.com.

Webbed Palms

To facilitate modern handhelds' new role as first-class clients of Web-based applications, mobile device vendors have equipped their latest offerings with ever more sophisticated Web browser applications. The browsers supplied by the Android and iPhone platforms, for example, are no pint-sized players. Both use a version of the WebKit rendering engine -- the same code base that powers the Chrome and Safari desktop browsers.

But believe it or not -- although details are still scant -- Palm's forthcoming WebOS SDK seems to take the concept of integrating the mobile platform with the Web a step further. Rumor has it that the Mojo Application Framework -- the primary development platform for webOS -- is based on the Dojo AJAX framework. Close examination reveals that sample Mojo code is rife with Dojo-like function calls. (Perhaps Mojo stands for "Mobile Dojo"?)

What's more, Palm's own description of the webOS application paradigm focuses less on games and computation-intensive system applications than it does on integration of disparate data sources -- such as contacts and calendar appointments -- from around the Web and network-enabled desktop applications.

Perhaps surprisingly, this is completely in keeping with the first-generation Palm OS of years ago. What made Palm great was that it was a platform that knew its place. Rather than trying to be a stripped-down version of a full-featured desktop OS -- I'm looking at you, Windows Mobile -- it served the strengths of its medium.

In the heyday of the PDA, when Palm ruled the roost, that meant a lean, easy-to-navigate UI that emphasized the immediate task that the user wanted to complete. In today's mobile network-connected era, however, the device that best serves the needs of the consumer will be the one that does the best job of aggregating the various personal data stores that the user has scattered across his or her various applications and platforms.

To its credit, Palm's new WebOS seems well-positioned to serve that niche -- which is a little bit amazing. A year ago, I never would have thought that in January 2009 I would have been writing something positive about Palm and its future as a smartphone platform. But, bless me, I think I've just done it.

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