A past future

Webos as a mobile platform never got its time in the sun. Perhaps it never even stood a chance. Despite that, the operating system and the devices powered by it remain fascinating to me. There were so many nice ideas and fresh takes packed in I can not help but fantasize.

Could I use one?

How would they work today?

The gadgets

A friend borrowed me a whole flight of devices to play with.

Touchpad, Pre 3, Veer, Pre Touchpad, Pre 3, Veer, Pre

Here we have a Pre 3, a Veer, a Pre, and a Touchpad. They represent almost the entirety of Webos hardware released by Palm and HP. Playing with them feels like a glimps of an alternate future. A world like our own, yet unfamiliar.

A world where, for some reason, hardware keyboards remained a thing.

Those hardware keyboards sure have not aged well. They do work, but it is abundantly clear why they were never a good idea. Apart from being minuscle (but yes, still usable) they are stuck with their layout and need to be pulled out whenever text entry is needed. The disconnect is a little similar to when you write on an Ipad using a keyboard and need to lift your finger to the screen to do certain things, only in reverse. (Did that make any sense?)

On the other hand, the whole keyboard thing does enable nice things. The screen experience feels cleaner and calmer when there are no software keyboards popping up. More importantly, screen sizes can be much more flexible.

The touch interface itself is lovely. It is not always snappy, but it always looks and feels good. A lot is based on swipes from different edges of the screen, and there are few enough variants and enough standardization that it feels easy to get into. The phones also have touch sensitivity below the screen, where you can tap to activate the task switcher, swipe back and forward and probably some more things I am forgetting. The bright line flashes or pulsates to reflect what you did, and can also blink to indicated notifications.

Veer smartphone Veer smartphone

This is the Veer close up. I am completely in love with this form factor, and I am very sure I would not like to try and use a software keyboard crammed onto this screen. Even though the keyboard is so clunky and limiting in itself, the whole package is tantilizing enough to make me wonder if there would have been more good ideas to find down that path.

Something else which struck me about the Veer is that it could be seen as a predecessor to today's smart watches. Ultra-compact, great for glancing at things … I was not surprised to read LG (the current owners of Webos) have actually released a watch running this OS. The Veer has one up on a watch by actually being a full phone when needed, and I feel a modern phone could have a niche to fill here. I mainly listen to my phone and do some light reading, but sometimes I need all the opportunities (apps, full web sites) to be available even if somewhat cramped.

I could see myself using a three-inch Iphone, or as small as they could be made while still somehow providing a workable keyboard.

Use - stuck in the past

When it comes to actually getting things done, time has not been kind to these devices. Their own online services are of course gone, but that is actually the smaller problem. The big problem is that the web browsers are out of date. Weak hardware probably exacerbates the problem, which is simply that most websites do not work anymore. Things load slowly, to be sure, but Javascript and modern HTML standards support seem to get in the way as well.

The Touchpad feels a little better, just from having a bit more power and a few more pixels of breathing room for sites. But the options for actual use are just as limited. Just like the Veer, it is nice to see just how well Webos scales, this time to a larger screen. It gains a nice on-screen. keyboard, but otherwise it just grows effortlessly to the form factor whithout any strange changes feeling called for.

Hardware

I love the look and feel of all three phones. They look calm, made for humans and … warm? Gadgets in black easily take on the sterile or even slightly evil appearance, but the Webos phones make me think of warm, smooth pebbles. Spa rocks. I can sit and turn them over in my hand all day, occasionally sliding out the keyboard with a satisfying click.

The Touchpad looks pretty nice, but feels very cheap. When I hold it, I always think of an Ipad put in some slightly soft plastic case. It feels in my hands as if I could twist it a bit, make an outer layer come off and then hold the actual device. Unfortunately not.

End

Each time I try to use one of the phones or the tablet, I am reminded just how old and antiquated they are. I could not use one as my daily phone, unless I was happy to stop using my phone for anything but calls.

Many of the ideas were great. Some were too early. The whole push was perhaps too late. Some ideas were just wrong.

And yet.

And yet, the artifacts remain. Beautiful time capsules, frozen in shape and form. First steps on a path to nowhere. The possibilities of an untried timeline will always be endless.

I have put them back in their boxes several times only to take them out. To play just a little bit more.

To think, once again, that perhaps I could use one.

Related

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