This continues my review of the HP/Palm Pre and webOS. Click below for the previous parts:
Part 1: Introduction and Hardware
Part 2: User Interface, Launcher, and Multitasking
Part 3: Synergy (Calendar and Contacts)
Part 4: Phone, Web, E-mail, and Messaging
Part 5: Camera, Photos, and Maps/Navigation
While the current version of webOS does an adequate job as a media player, I think it falls short of what it could, or should, have been. A lot of commentators have noted that Apple’s success with the iPod means that the iPhone’s media capabilities should be expected to exceed those of their competitors, but I think there were opportunities for Palm to pull ahead here in many ways. Instead, the media capabilities not only fall short of the iPhone, but, in some ways, also fails to match older competitors such as Windows Mobile and even the Palm OS. I haven’t seen strong indications yet that HP is targeting these issues with webOS 2.0, although maybe there are partnerships to be announced in February.
The greatest opportunity would have come from countering Apple’s infamous adherence to a closed ecosystem by working to make WebOS compatible with as many audio/video formats as possible. Instead, Palm only included support for pretty much the same formats that Apple did, mainly variants on MP3 and AAC audio and H264 and MP4 video. I think that Palm seriously missed the ball by not at least licensing the Windows Media formats from Microsoft and/or including support for common open-source codecs like Ogg Vorbis and Flac.
A big disadvantage on Palm’s side is a complete lack of support for any kind of protected formats at all. That isn’t a huge deal for music, since most online stores have now gone to distributing unprotected files, but it greatly limits the available support for commercial movies and TV programs or for audiobooks. I strongly think they HP should make every effort to get support for Audible.com audiobooks and for Windows Media protected video onto the platform as soon as possible. In fact, I think seem support for protected video content will be absolutely essential for the tablet that they are expected to announce next week.
One of the biggest advantages Apple has is their tight integration with iTunes, which is now the largest music retailer in the US. Palm wisely partnered with Apple’s most aggressive online competitor, Amazon.com, to include a nicely designed application for locating, purchasing, and downloading music. I didn’t really expect to use this much, but I have actually ended up purchasing quite a bit of music this way. It is nice to be able to purchase and very quickly start listening when I hear about some music of interest while away from home. The music is the same quality as the downloads purchased from Amazon via the desktop and, since it is unprotected, you can easily transfer the tracks to a computer via the USB connection.
Possibly the single biggest miscalculation that Palm made early on with webOS was hacking synchronization compatibility with iTunes by having the phone attempt to impersonate an iPod. This put Palm into a war with Apple, which they simply couldn’t win. For a while, every update to iTunes intentionally broke this feature, with Palm having to quickly code a new hack into their OS updates. The synchronization has now been broken for over a year and Palm finally gave up on the feature early. The 1.4 update disabled the “Media Sync” option by default, requiring those still trying to sync with an older version of iTunes to go into the settings to re-enable it. I’d be surprised if the feature is still present at all in Web OS 2.0.
That war with Apple was a monumental waste of time and resources on Palm’s part that left them with some damage to their reputation (the USB committee even cited them for using Apple’s USB ID) and a missing feature for their users. It isn’t remotely surprising that Apple didn’t want Palm doing this and it created an ethical grey area at best. Palm would have been much better off either partnering with a more willing maker of music management software or building their own synchronization tool, possibly making use of Apple’s published API’s for accessing the iTunes library. Web OS still needs a viable media sync capability and hopefully HP is working on a sustainable solution.