Barely two months after the HP TouchPad launched, and we’re already writing its obituary. Even RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook tablet has survived for longer than that. I was among the reviewers who took HP to task on the TouchPad–but even so, I’m saddened by the news that the tablet world has one fewer competitor. After using the TouchPad over the past few weeks, I can say that I liked certain aspects of the TouchPad and WebOS, and that I was looking forward to seeing these features in second-generation hardware. I can only hope that other tablet makers take a hard look at their mobile operating systems and tablets, and that they find ways to prevent these five hardware and software capabilities from dying with the HP TouchPad and WebOS.
I’ll admit that calling an app window an “activity card” felt a bit foreign. That said, however, I loved the ability to group related items together, regardless of which app they were in. The idea of gathering, say, a PDF with a related document, a map, and a Web page is a terrific rethinking of what “multitasking” can mean in practical use. I hope that Apple and Google figure out how to integrate a similar concept into their respective operating systems–in iOS and Android, related app content is siloed, not as manageable as in WebOS.
C’mon, it’s a Web-connected world: It would be nice if the now-defunct WebOS weren’t the only mobile operating system to truly exist in concert with other mobile services. The ability to unify contact information–and even access images stored on Facebook directly from the tablet–were nice add-ons that made the WebOS-based TouchPad feel more connected than its Android and iOS competitors do. The Web is one big sandbox, and everyone needs to play nicely there. The better the integration, the better users can maximize their presence across the Internet. Keeping information isolated runs counter to a connected world; the level of service integration that WebOS and the TouchPad had was a differentiator, and it’s something that Apple and Google should, again, look at closely.
On tablets, I’ve seen just two approaches to multitasking work well–and neither one is in use by the market leaders. The first is the jog-wheel approach of some Android widgets (such as on the Lenovo IdeaPad K1, where you can move through apps that you choose to add to the wheel at the touch of a finger). And the second is the horizontal-scroll-bar approach of WebOS on the TouchPad (and, to be fair, on the QNX-based BlackBerry PlayBook, another tablet on life support right now). The horizontal-scroll design is much more finger friendly than Google’s vertical-scroll “recently accessed” pop-up. Apple’s approach is great on the iPhone, but on the iPad it’s annoying to have to move your finger all the way down to the bottom of the tablet–far from the iPad’s center of gravity–just to change apps.
Apple, Google: See how you can rework what you’re doing now into something even better. The more I use tablets, the more I find that even though the bottom of the screen is useful for menus and buttons, navigation requiring two hands (such as multitasking) is better situated in the center of the screen.
Easy Menu Access
Software can always be transformed. Android is particularly malleable, thanks to its open nature. Already I’ve seen numerous takes on Android 3.x Honeycomb, such as re-skins of annoying buttons and changes to the settings pop-up. But the base, stock Android falls a bit short–after all, tablet makers wouldn’t be customizing the OS if Google had nailed the Honeycomb interface in the first place.
So what did I like about WebOS on the TouchPad? I liked the notifications system–though I fear that with my email volume, I’d have worn my fingers out flicking through incoming notifications. I loved the settings shortcut pop-up: One touch at the top of the display, and the menu gave me access to brightness, Wi-Fi, VPN, Bluetooth, airplane mode, rotation lock, and mute–in other words, most of the settings I might need quick access to. Android has some of these settings up front, but not all of them. Samsung’s new TouchWiz UX rework of Honeycomb, as seen on the Galaxy Tab 10.1, adds these features to Android’s quick-settings menu, but you need to scroll through them. I liked the simplicity of the menu in WebOS. Heck, I liked the clean simplicity of most menus in WebOS–something that Android can learn from (yes, Google, full disclosure is useful, and information is power, but your settings menus remain a turn-off for the average consumer).
The one thing that HP’s hardware had going for it: The TouchPad has, to date, produced the best-sounding audio I’ve heard from a 10-inch tablet. The 7-inch RIM PlayBook does a surprisingly good job as well, but in my tests I often inadvertently covered the front-firing speakers with my fingers. The TouchPad’s bottom-firing speakers produced well-balanced, undistorted audio that didn’t make me cringe; in fact, I enjoyed listening to music on the TouchPad, a lot. The speakers on most every other tablet I’ve tested–including the Apple iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1—leave so much to be desired that using them is a last-ditch option, when you need speakers and have nothing else on hand to pipe your audio through. Tablet designers, take note: Whatever HP did in its TouchPad design (the tablet’s plastic backing seemed to help with the acoustics, though HP never did pinpoint what was responsible).