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Six Clicks: Features introduced in webOS you are using today

The webOS mobile platform introduced by Palm is no longer used on commercial products, but it introduced features so innovative that some are still in use by Apple, Microsoft, Google...
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By James Kendrick, Contributor on
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Six Clicks: Features introduced in webOS still in use

The year was 2009, and the room was packed with thousands of journalists to see the latest from Palm. The excitement was thick, something normally only experienced at an Apple launch event. Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein took the stage to unveil the Palm Pre with its innovative new OS, webOS.

Sadly, the lifespan of webOS and the phones and tablet it powered was far too short. Palm was acquired by HP in short order, and the webOS hardware was soon gone from this world. 

The webOS platform had innovation baked in at every level, and it's probably the best mobile OS to end up a commercial failure. The phones didn't sell well, and the TouchPad tablet released by HP after the acquisition was cancelled a mere 45 days after its release.

It's easy to believe that webOS was not a good OS based on its short history, but it was built on features so innovative some are still in use today. This blast from the past highlights the major innovations introduced with webOS that are so good they have been adopted by every major player in the mobile space.

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Apps as cards

In webOS, the engineers at Palm introduced a new way to work with apps running on phones and tablets. They used a system that was a first where each running app was represented by a card that could show at a glance what was running on the webOS device at any given time.

These cards weren't just static images as was common at the time. They could be dragged into any order, and most impressively they were live images. Apps displaying video or other information that was continually updated would still do so on the card when the app was pushed into the background by the user to do other things.

This method has not disappeared with webOS. It has been adopted by Apple in iOS7, although the fluid webOS implementation was better. This is the graphical task manager in iOS invoked by clicking the Home button twice.

It has also been used by BlackBerry on its Playbook tablet, in fact that OS looks an awful lot like webOS.

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Gestures to close running apps

Palm didn't settle for having live cards representing running apps. It also introduced the clever way to close background apps by swiping them up and off the screen. A simple gesture that is so intuitive it makes working with multiple apps easy.

This is now used in iOS7 and Windows 8, running apps are minimized to a card and swiped off the screen to close them. 

 

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Integrating social networks into the fabric of the OS

One of the most significant features in webOS introduced by Palm was so good it is now used in every major mobile platform. Palm called it Synergy, and it is the integration of social networks and major online services into the core of the OS.

When you get a call on your smartphone and see the caller's Facebook profile picture, you can thank webOS for that. Palm built into webOS the ability to integrate with Facebook, Twitter, and major online services. This integration linked the user's phone contacts with those of Facebook in particular, building a single pool of contact information.

This integration is now commonplace on every major mobile OS, including iOS, Windows Phone, and Android. This all started with Palm and webOS.

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Swiping in from the bezel to facilitate operation

HP introduced the ill-fated TouchPad tablet, and it extended the unique touch interface by using touch-sensitive bezels around the screen. This eliminated the need to include physical buttons. Users could invoke the unique 'apps as cards' interface by swiping up from the bottom bezel, among other functions.

The concept of swiping in from the bezel is alive and well in Windows 8. Those using Microsoft's latest version of Windows on touch devices are familiar with invoking common system menus by swiping in from the four sides of the screen.

When you swipe in from the side to slide a menu out for app operation, you can thank webOS. This functionality is common in all mobile OSes, especially Android.

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Wireless device charging hits the mainstream

The ability to charge gadgets without plugging them in wasn't introduced by Palm, but it's implementation of the option was a first. The Touchstone charger for the Palm Pre was elegantly designed and Palm Pre owners snapped them up in droves.

The optional Touchstone charger was a small 'stone' that would charge the phone by simply placing it on the charger. The Touchstone was plugged into the wall and set on the desk, and the phone would charge wirelessly through the back cover of the phone.

Wireless charging is now available through major OEMs, like Nokia for its phones.

Palm was the first to integrate wireless charging with the OS. When the Palm Pre was set on the Touchstone to charge, the phone would automatically switch to speakerphone mode so calls could be made hands-free. This was carried onto the TouchPad, as HP produced a desk stand that would wirelessly charge the tablet. The OS could automatically switch to a dock mode and display desired information while sitting in the stand.

Dock mode switching is now integrated into Android.

 

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Linking webOS devices to add functionality

Palm was responsible for most of the innovation covered in this collection, but HP introduced one that is still in use today. Given HP's short tenure with webOS, it's likely even this one was on the drawing board of Palm's engineers.

HP included a unique function in the Palm Pre 3 and TouchPad never before seen. These two webOS devices could wirelessly sense when near each other to meld OS operation seamlessly.

While using the TouchPad tablet, with the Palm Pre 3 phone nearby, calls and text messages would automatically appear on the tablet. The user didn't have to pick up the phone to deal with interruptions. They could see them on the tablet they were holding. This turned the two devices into a single communications solution, simply by having them close to one another.

This is basically the same functionality seen today in the hot wearable segment, smartwatches in particular. When you see an incoming call or message on your watch, you can thank webOS for bringing that into play.

 

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