Technology analysis of the latest gadgets, consoles, and computer architectures.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A[mazon][dobe]'s Future Application Platform: WebOS, Codename Enyo

We have now reached the point of no return: after returning to its parent company 3com/HP, the original Palm hardware group has been assimilated and Palm is no more. They were given one final run, producing the TouchPad in under 1 year and providing the Pre line with hardware it deserved with the Veer and Pre^3; however, it was too little, too late. Ultimately, what HP did was keep Palm alive long enough to finally produce the tablet the WebOS faithful have been waiting for; had this tablet been introduced at CES along with the Pre^3 and Touch-to-Share in 2009 (or subsequently followed the "Pre"release, Pixi, and Apple's iPad), the original buzz generated from CES 2009 may have carried on and made WebOS a definitive third in the mobile OS race. Instead, Palm failed to attract the attention (and sales) needed to provide WebOS with enough traction to compete on its own, and by the time the funding was available to produce arguably the first great hardware to run WebOS (circa 2011), iOS and Android have finally picked up on many of the features that makes WebOS great: more flexible and non-intrusive notifications, gestures, better multitasking support, synergy, and a cloud-based profile and backup.

The great software that has kept Palm alive is now all that remains. Back in April of 2010 I authored a post speculating on hardware companies that could acquire Palm and benefit from and produce great hardware for WebOS (HP was missing from my list ;-). Now, the question that remains is, who will truly benefit from WebOS as a software (and application) platform? Out of the many rumoured companies interested at this point, I will pick 4. - One of the four modern computing titans, and the only without an OS to call its own. Amazon was the first to recognize that as a sales-centric company, as more and more content goes digital, it would need a platform of its own to deliver this content. The Kindle was the first such platform, which began with ebooks (currently surpassing paperback sales) and continues with apps, music, and video on the Fire.

The Kindle Fire runs a heavily customized Android 2.3 skin, but the Amazon App Store has been around for over 6 months and provides access to over 8500 apps. By contrast, the HP TouchPad has over 5500 apps, many of which came from the Pre, which has been around for over 2 years. For the current launch (and the 2011 holiday market), a $200 7" Android-based tablet will fare well. However, relying on the Android platform and essentially forking 2.3 may not be a good longterm strategy, especially considering the app fragmentation that will result once 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) is widely deployed.

Amazon has already shown a desire to have a strong presence in the cloud computing market, launching EC2 in 2006 well before Google's App Engine was introduced in 2008. The Silk browser on the Fire is another example of Amazon's push onto using the Web as an application engine. If Amazon were to acquire WebOS from HP, the next iteration of WebOS could be the platform for applications running and data stored in the cloud. Google's Chrome OS has already taken that next step, replicating WebOS by providing a web-based app platform and using the user login to sync apps and bookmarks, making the hardware a dummy terminal for the platform.

Amazon has also proven that the digital content you purchase is intended to be OS and device independent; Kindle books are available on iOS, WebOS, Android, and in any browser. The web applications already developed for WebOS are not restricted to a specific architecture (e.g. ARM or x86); theoretically, any non-PDK application (and ported PDK application) can also run within a browser. If Amazon were to purchase WebOS, not only would it gain a Linux-based UI that it could expand for a future Kindle Fire (and other portable media consumption devices), but also an App Catalog and WebOS profile that could be made accessible on any PC and mobile device. Imagine browsing the Amazon store through the lens of an application like the App Catalog on the TouchPad; Pivot is a great sales tool that can be utilized by to further sales similar to a weekly flyer, and each item can be previewed (video, photos, and reviews), saved to the cart or wish list, and purchased from a mobile device with ease.

Adobe - Flash is DOA on mobile devices, Steve Jobs decries, and Adobe's Web stronghold (acquired from Macromedia in 2005) begins its demise. Steve Jobs took Flash to the grave, leaving us with HTML5, an open standard to multimedia on the web. Originally pushed by WebKit (which powers Android/Chrome, Safari, and WebOS), Adobe acknowledges that future applications will be based on HTML5, with native applications for mobile devices (and Adobe Air on the desktop) filling in the gaps. With Flash dead, Adobe needs to resurrect itself in a significant way, and what better way than with WebOS. Adobe can quickly take WebOS applications to the desktop and mobile thanks to Enyo, further develop Ares and support developers and the multi-platform SDK, and advance the PDK to allow for native development on more platforms.

Adobe would also gain users and the WebOS profile, which can be combined with the Adobe login to support the syncing of epubs and build in support to borrow books from libraries directly from a tablet.

Intel - With Nokia dropping active development of Meego and the ARM-dominated mobile device market threatening the x86 business model, Intel may be looking for a new boost to its mobile presence. Intel already has the expertise gained from developing Meego for x86; combined with the UI and application framework from WebOS, it has the potential to finally combine performance and features to its mobile offerings to compete with Android and iOS on ARM. Aside from making WebOS available to all PC OEMs as a light alternative to loading up Windows, Intel has the potential to form partnerships with HP, Samsung, LG, and Lenevo to further push WebOS on x86-based tablets.

Qualcomm - The big launch partner for the 2011 HP WebOS devices, WebOS is already running on Qualcomm CPUs and can be further developed and pushed to mobile OEMs (HTC, Samsung, LG) to expand the adoption of its ARM chips (and provide patent licensing to protect new entrants). Ultimately this would be a competitive move to prevent Intel from gaining from WebOS on x86 and further the dominance of ARM.

Full disclosure: my preference is Amazon for the future parent of WebOS; I just see a lot more potential than with the other 3 options. Opera would be a great alternative to Amazon, but it doesn't have the resources to be able to go far with WebOS. Adobe is the most practical home for WebOS, as the development resources have already started focusing on getting applications to work on any PC or mobile device, and Adobe could use an HTML5-based web platform. Intel and Qualcomm may result in more hardware running WebOS, but it is a larger risk and will likely take a significant amount of resources to make WebOS a strong alternative to iOS, Android, and Windows. At this point, the only potential for HP to reinvest in WebOS is as a non-exclusive OEM; the actions taken by the company in the past few months have significantly reduced the value for HP-owned WebOS.