Please Steal These webOS Features

When Apple introduced the first iPad in 2010, I bought one immediately. I didn’t know what I’d use it for, but I was sure that I would find some use for it. I never did. I played around with it, wrote some code for it, but eventually stopped using it. I would pick it up from time to time to read something or watch a YouTube movie, but even that was a rare occurrence. I have since picked up an iPad 2, and I’m using it a lot more than the first iPad, but again, I’m pretty much only using it to consume content.

I suspect that most people use their iPads similarly: to surf the web, watch movies, play games, read books, and graphic novels. Essentially, to consume. Of course, there are always exceptions. There are great music and painting apps for the iPad, for example. But how many iPad owners are musicians or like to paint with their fingers? In the grand scheme of things, not many, I suspect.

So when I bought a TouchPad after HP discontinued it, I never assumed that I would use it for actual work. But I am doing just that. I’m using it to respond to email, to do research on the Internet, to take notes during meetings.

So why was it so easy for me to use the TouchPad for work, but not the iPad? I think it’s because there are a number of things the TouchPad does that make it more suitable for work.

Now that it is becoming increasingly obvious that HP won’t do anything useful with webOS, it’s time to start stealing1 the things it does well. Here are some of these things.

Switching Apps

Sometimes, you agonize over how something should be designed. And then you come up with an idea, or see somebody else’s solution, and you’re just blown away by how obvious it seems. The cards UI for switching between apps in webOS is such an idea. I don’t think I need to elaborate.2 Nothing else I’ve seen comes close. By now, many other platforms have implemented their own versions of this concept, but the original remains the best.

One App, Many Screens

Almost every time I try to use the iPhone or iPad for writing a response to an email that is longer than «Okay» or «I’ll be there», I have this problem: I need to refer to another email. Maybe it’s something somebody said in an earlier conversation. Maybe it’s something from the mail I’m replying to, and I’ve already deleted it. Regardless, it constantly happens to me.

On iOS, it’s almost impossible to leave a draft, read another mail, and go back to the draft. It can be done, but it’s ridiculously cumbersome.3 On webOS?

Yep, the new email opens in its own card that’s attached to the Mail application’s card. You can easily go back to your other mails, search them, read them, copy text from them, do whatever you want. You can even start writing another mail, and easily switch between the two drafts.

Organizing Windows

Recently, I was in a meeting where we discussed color schemes for an application. We wanted to keep the number of colors as low as possible, but still have enough color to clearly show the difference between content foreground, content background, and application chrome. It occurred to me that 90s videogames did a pretty good job differentiating between layers — characters, environment, background, HUDs — using a very limited color palette. I wondered how they achieved this. So I did a quick Google search for screenshots from different games, and opened a few of them. Here’s what this looked like in webOS.

I’m looking at six different web pages at the same time. I can easily switch between them, add new ones, or removes ones I don’t need anymore. On the iPad, I’d be looking at a bunch of tabs with cryptic names.

Accounts

Document management on iOS is a mess. Every application implements its own scheme. They all work differently. Some allow you do open documents in other applications that support a matching file format. Others don’t. Some support Dropbox, or other services. Others don’t. Some allow you to organize your documents hierarchically or spatially, others don’t.

In webOS, you can set up different system-wide accounts.

Each of this account can provide a number of different services.

These services are immediately available in all webOS applications. QuickOffice doesn’t need to support Dropbox, or your Google Documents account; webOS handles this. QuickOffice just has to be a good citizen, support the proper webOS APIs, and it gets access to all of these services automatically.

Related to this, Windows 84 has a concept called «contracts», which allows applications to interact with each other, and provide services that can be used by each other. This way, a photo application can call upon a Twitter application to share a picture on Twitter without implementing any Twitter-specific code, or a text editor can open a file from a Dropbox application without knowing what Dropbox is.

Neither of these two solutions are perfect, but both are much better than simply providing a global way of storing Twitter credentials.

Aside: I don’t think either webOS or Windows Phone 7 (even with contracts) «solve» the «documents problem» on mobile devices, though. Documents should not be relegated into applications. Documents should be a first-level OS concept, the same way apps are. Document management, including document creation, should be handled by the system.

Splitting document management up into two parts, the way Windows and the Mac do it (with parts of it happening in the Finder, and parts of it happening in applications’ open/save dialogs) is one of the dumbest things desktop systems do. It’s probably a result of technical constraints, rather than a conscious design decision (there wasn’t enough RAM to keep the Finder and an app in memory at the same time, thus apps had to replicate parts of the Finder). But somehow, it has survived into the present day.

The Keyboard

For a long time, Apple had the best touchscreen keyboard, bar none. Recently, others have caught up. The keyboard in Windows Phone 7 is fantastic, and the one in webOS also does a number of things right.

To begin with, it has a number row. No more switching between different modes to type numbers. You can access them directly.

My biggest problem with text input on iOS is its flaky autocorrection. I’m regularly typing words iOS doesn’t auto-correct properly, so I need a simple, quick way to revert autocorrection. iOS doesn’t have that. webOS does. Simply hit delete after webOS corrects something. Rather than deleting the last character, this undoes the autocorrection. Boom. Done.

But quite often, I type a lot of text, and don’t pay any attention to autocorrection. On iOS, this means I have to go back and closely read through my text to find every instance where iOS made a ducking error. Not so on webOS.

Autocorrections are underlined, can be easily identified, and, if necessary, quickly reverted. webOS will even make a small noise when it auto-corrects something, so you know when to pay attention.

Notifications

This could be an essay all on its own. iOS 5 has introduced a system for managing notifications, and it’s not bad.5 But webOS still wins, doing a number of things that make notifications less intrusive, more useful, and more manageable.

One feature I particularly like is that you can just «shove» a notification away with your finger if you don’t want to see it anymore. It’s just a tiny thing, but it feels so much better and more satisfying than carefully hitting the tiny «delete» button on iOS.

Another neat feature is that webOS apps can resize to pretty much any size. So when a new notification appears, it doesn’t cover the application. Instead, the application shrinks a bit to make room for the notification.

Quick Access to Regularly Changed Settings

On my iPhone, I’m using David Barnard’s Launch Center to get to the Brightness setting. I don’t know if the people at Apple never change their phone’s brightness, but I do this quite often. It’s a chore.

On webOS?

Much easier.

Just Type

It’s a bit like a simple version of Quicksilver, except it’s built right into the OS. Of course, this works best with a hardware keyboard.

This Isn’t All

Of course, this article doesn’t list all of the amazing things webOS does. These are just some of the things that made it easier for me to do actual work on a TouchPad, compared to an iPad. But there’s a lot more webOS does right. For example, I really love the way you develop applications for webOS. And I actually think that the Veer is a pretty great phone.6

The Future

webOS isn’t quite dead yet. It’s just being open-sourced, which, when it happens to commercial software, often turns out to be the digital equivalent of being reanimated as a walking corpse in a George Romero movie. You’re still shuffling around a bit, and occasionally making some (mostly incomprehensible) noises, but you probably won’t make it too far anymore.

Of course, it’s not assured that this is the end of webOS. Maybe open-sourcing it will be the best thing that ever happened to webOS.7 But maybe it just means that HP doesn’t care anymore, and that webOS won’t receive much attention anymore. This would be unfortunate, because webOS is one of the few current mobile operating systems that are actually a joy to use. It’s been hurt by HP’s incompetent management, rather than any egregious faults of its own.

The least we can do now is to keep its best ideas alive, even if webOS itself won’t make it.

You can discuss this article on Hacker News.


  1. I’m using the word the way Brian Ford defined it: take the idea, but make it your own. Don’t just copy it; be inspired by it, and improve upon it. back

  2. For those who have never seen it, watch a video of the original implementation hereback

  3. Here’s a nifty shortcut that makes this a bit less annoying on iOSback

  4. I originally mistakenly claimed that contracts exist on WP7. I’m not sure where I got that impression, but as Ryan Versaw pointed out, and as far as I can tell, that was wrong. Contracts don’t yet exist on WP7, but seem to be planned. back

  5. In an earlier version of this article, I had a complaint about Android’s notification system here. But since I haven’t used ICS (it doesn’t run on any of my devices), I’ve removed this complaint. Seems unfair to complain about something that might be fixed in a newer version of Android. back

  6. Obviously, I’m in the minority here, but I don’t think all phones need to look exactly like an iPhone; there should be a market for smaller (and yes, also for larger) devices. Even if you assume that everybody has the same needs, not everybody has the same hands. I also think there should be a market for devices with different form factors and input methods. Personally, I really like hardware keyboards and styluses; I wish my iPad would allow me to write and draw on it with a real, pressure sensitive pen. back

  7. And I’ve heard positive things from people inside HP. All hope is definitely not lost. back

If you require a short url to link to this article, please use http://ignco.de/419

designed_for_use_small

If you liked this, you'll love my book. It's called Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web. In it, I cover the whole design process, from user research and sketching to usability tests and A/B testing. But I don't just explain techniques, I also talk about concepts like discoverability, when and how to use animations, what we can learn from video games, and much more.

You can find out more about it (and order it directly, printed or as a DRM-free ebook) on the Pragmatic Programmers website. It's been translated to Chinese and Japanese.