An Onion headline from 1997 seemed to sum things up: "RC Cola Celebrates 10th Purchase." Through the '80s and into the '90s, Royal Crown continued to lose market share while its two main competitors gobbled it up. The company had a loyal following and national distribution, but in the eyes of a Coke-and-Pepsi nation, it was the loser, the perennial bronze medalist.
Things only got worse for RC. As the two cola giants continued to grow, they inked deals with retailers….
"[Coke and Pepsi] started carving up the retail market and shutting RC out in the process."
-- from Mental Floss, “The Tragic History of RC Cola”
On a chilly night in late 2010, I walked out of a Sprint store and into a doomed love affair. The object of my affections nestled in a small pocket of my work bag. I brandished it proudly at my boyfriend over dinner, crowing about the intuitive interface and seamless syncing. He was the one who had introduced me to this star-crossed device. He’s too nice to say so, but it’s an introduction my boyfriend probably regrets.
That device was a Palm Pre running webOS, the first – and to date, only – mobile operating system I have ever truly loved. Our connection was instant and effortless: webOS was everything I never knew I’d always wanted. I could navigate its elegant, uncluttered interface with intuitive gestures and a keyboard that never made me choose between speed and clarity. The gesture area rendered the phone fully operational with one hand, something you can only truly appreciate when your murderous bus driver is roaring over potholes at 45 MPH. Support for Flash and Java meant no website had to wait until I got to a “real” computer, and the Pre supported viewing Word docs and PDFs years before iOS or Android. Inductive charging spared me from fussing with cables. Best of all, I could do more than one thing at a time: The Pre – and its tablet counterpart, the Touchpad – supported real multitasking. Of course, this golden era couldn’t last; great romances rarely end well. But it wasn’t webOS that let me down. Like the shows previously memorialized in this column, the greatest mobile OS that ever was or will be collapsed under lazy marketing, poor management decisions, and being, well, too far ahead of its time.
A portable computing device must serve a wider array of needs than a desktop or laptop computer, and it has to do so with less battery life, screen real estate, and processing power. A decade ago, most of the other players in the burgeoning smartphone market dealt with these limits by targeting a user base and tailoring devices for their needs; a manufacturer’s job was as much to convince consumers they needed a particular set of functions as it was to develop them. Consider the gulf between the BlackBerry and iPhone of 2007: the former was an office workhorse whose users accepted that it could have little bandwidth left over for fun, and the latter was a music player-slash-phone which no right-minded corporate IT department would let within 100 miles of the company servers.
The Palm developers behind WebOS didn’t want users to have to choose between entertainment and productivity. Instead, they set out to design an ecosystem that supported everything users might want or need to do on the go. Considering the limits of hardware and cellular networks of ten years ago, this was an ambitious and visionary goal. They pulled it off by shifting some development focus from actions (what users did with their phones) to data and interface (how users interacted with their phones). The greatest features of webOS still hold up now – seven years after the release of the first webOS device and five years after HP acquired and abandoned the platform – because they anticipated the ways our phones and tablets would integrate themselves into our lives.
Let’s start with data. WebOS used a feature called Synergy to sync data across multiple applications without requiring multiple logins. So once I entered my credentials into the email app, the Pre also populated my calendar, address book, and chat lists with information from that account. It aggregated contact information to link profiles across services and facilitate quick selection of a mode of contact. Synergy also enabled inter-app and inter-service communication: My Facebook photos showed up in their own album in the native Photos app, chat services and text conversations appeared in a single Messaging thread per contact, and the Email app could add attachments from your choice of the photo, video, music, or document libraries. These seamless connections integrated with another feature that still makes webOS users everywhere sigh wistfully: Just Type.
Just Type is exactly what it says on the tin: you started typing and Just Type would return anything matching the text string, whether an app, a name, or a location. The Pre could search Google, Maps (Google but later Bing), Wikipedia, or Twitter, or load a webpage or dial a phone number entered directly into the Just Type bar. Later on, the Touchpad would integrate access to all content on the device, including documents, bookmarks and web history, contacts, creation of new content (like memos, calendar events, and email) AND up the ante by enabling the addition of any website that had a search bar. So if, like me, you spend a lot of your Netflixing wondering Why That Person Looks So Familiar, you could punch in a title and jump straight to that IMDb page. Combined with ingenious drop down menus that enabled quick access to preferences, text editing, brightness, and toggling Wifi, Bluetooth, and Airplane Mode, Just Type made possible a full-featured but uncluttered desktop.
In keeping with this simple, elegant aesthetic, WebOS’ notification system squared unobtrusiveness with accessibility. Notifications popped up as “flags” that offered key information without eating too much screen real estate. You could tap them to open the source item or swipe them to clear the screen. And – this is a feature I would still kill for – any time you had notifications pending, a small white LED integrated into the home button would blink to alert you. When I crawled out of bed in the morning I knew before turning on the screen whether I had to deal with anything right away.
If I did have to tap out a groggy email or text first thing in the morning, the Pre and the Touchpad offered the handiest physical and virtual keyboards, respectively, that I’ve ever used in any mobile device. Both mirrored traditional keyboards as much as possible in spite of space limitations, and both supported real typing – that is, real capitalization, spell check, and punctuation – with minimal effort. Out of the box, both devices automatically converted i+space/r+space/u+space to I/are/you and added apostrophes to contractions. In addition to performing these wondrous minor grammatical feats, the Touchpad offered customizable Text Assist. Nobody had to know how lazy you were, or even that you were writing from a virtual keyboard; on mine, bc, thru, and tmw magically update to because, through, and tomorrow. And both the Pre and the Touchpad offered better support for multi-lingual typing, and special characters in 2011 than my iPhone 6 offers in 2016. My resizable virtual keyboard came with a number row and shift keys. Think about the last time you had to punch a complex password into a mobile device. If you work in IT, you just realized your users keep choosing crappy passwords because they don’t want to deal with entering them into their phones and tablets. If you don’t, you just realized you’ve been rejiggering your passwords because the thought of hunting down # or % gives you the howling fantods.
But WebOS’ greatest and most innovative feature was its multitasking. Years before Google or Apple caught up, the first generation of webOS supported real multitasking, including background app loading and quick task switching. If a webpage took forever to load (remember when 3G was hot shit?) it could hum along in the background while I checked Twitter, switched Pandora stations, or responded to a text. I could page across and switch between cards without getting waylaid on a vestigial Home screen. Pre cards could be reordered, and Touchpad cards could be reordered AND stacked. So if you were working on one email to your boss about a Big Project and another to your friend about his bachelor party, you could work from separate stacks and not risk accidentally sending your boss a link to, say, a nerdy burlesque show.
If you’re wondering how such a great system could have failed to nab wider attention and broader market share, then I have one word for you: Firefly. WebOS was that good, and that overlooked. And much like Firefly, whose creators, performers, and in-jokes percolate up through other media in ways that both assuage and aggravate the loss of the original, elements of webOS have made their way into today’s mobile computing, rarely crediting or living up to the original. iPhones support cards, but can’t reorder or stack them. Punching Spanish text into Google Translate is doable but way more of a hassle than necessary. Android kind of supports the swipe-to-go-back gesture that webOS pioneered, but the feature requires some kind of patch and isn’t supported in all apps. And on and on.
Much like Coke and Pepsi, Apple and Google each marketed themselves as an alternative to the other, crowding out the rest of the competition by pretending they didn’t exist. Odds are good you can’t recall offhand what iOS or Android devices were capable of seven years ago, but you do remember their ad campaigns. Apple wasn’t selling a device so much as a lifestyle, a handheld incarnation of social capital and tech savvy. Motorola marketed the Droid (the first really memorable Android phone) as a quirky robotic emissary from the future, a HAL-esque repudiation of the closed iOS ecosystem. Before long, both consumers and developers bought into the binary, and the resulting proliferation in their app catalogs dwindled interest in scrappier, less well-marketed contenders like webOS, Windows Mobile, and BlackBerry.
Apple and Google did lock in much of the best hardware, and even the most fervent webOS enthusiasts will admit that both the Pre and the Touchpad’s form factors leave much to be desired. But who wants a pretty shell powered by a frustrating, counterintuitive interface? Who wants to communicate on a device whose design so constrains capitalization and punctuation that our emails must be accompanied by default postscripts apologizing for the subpar quality of our missives? Who wants to punch in their credentials again and again and again because none of your apps can talk to each other?
Our phones and tablets carry the information and connections we can no longer do without. A mobile operating system must function simultaneously like a robot butler and a manifestation of your digitized self. A good one is an ideal companion, a near-cybernetic extension of yourself. A lousy – or even an unsatisfactory – one is about as helpful as a recurring charley horse. WebOS was that ideal companion, and more people might have discovered it – and demanded more of the Big Two who eventually took over the mobile computing market – if not for a thousand small catastrophes (and at least one incredibly shortsighted corporate overlord). WebOS didn’t deserve to succumb to those any more than Firefly did, but that’s what happens when you’re too great too soon.
ODDS & ENDS
- The opening quote was taken from Jeff Wells’ excellent chronicle of the rise and fall of RC Cola, published on Mental Floss.
- If you want more history about webOS and/or Palm’s last gasp, The Verge has a comprehensive article.
- HP cut webOS loose as an open source platform; it also lives on as an operating system for LG TVs and smartwatches.
- I don’t care what anybody says. WebOS lives.