Palm's webOS lives up to hype, early developers say

Palm’s new operating system is designed with the mobile Web in mind

The platform has a set of core applications, including contacts, calendar, phone, e-mail and messaging; services APIs to device features such as phone and camera; the Prototype JavaScript framework; and widgets, all tied in with event handling and notification services, and all accessible to developers.

Some developers have argued that because JavaScript is not a compiled language and there's no conventional object code, then webOS programs are not true executables and therefore not "real" applications. But these early webOS developers disagree. "The application has native support in the OS and it runs on the device," says Ian McFarland, Pivotal's vice president of technology.

In that sense, webOS applications are like native applications. But they differ by running in the WebKit engine instead of interacting directly with an underlying OS.

"Your application is running as though it were a kind of series of dynamic Web pages in an embedded browser," says Pandora's Conrad. "It's not compiled into 'non-Web code.' It executes within a true Web environment."

One potential problem with this approach is anemic application performance. But Palm made performance a top priority and exploited a lot of recent work in this area. "They've really moved the state of the art along in terms of browser and JavaScript technologies," says Conrad. "I think everyone's [performance] concerns are going to be answered. It feels just like using a set of native [compiled] applications, from a performance or any other standpoint."

Multitasking to the max

Multitasking -- being able to run several applications at once on a mobile device -- isn't unique. RIM's BlackBerry OS supports it, as does Microsoft's Windows Mobile. Even Apple's iPhone OS supports it, though Apple restricts third-party use of this capability.

But multitasking often is limited and hard to exploit in conventional platforms, according to Pivotal's McFarland. "If you're composing an e-mail on the iPhone, you can't check other e-mails in the same thread, or check a Web site to add a link to the e-mail, or copy-and-paste something," McFarland says. "You can't do these kinds of things on most mobile platforms."

By contrast, "webOS has fully embraced the notion of applications running at the same time, as PCs do," Sepulveda says. "You can now write applications that are more complex."

That ability raises the potential for problems, however. Apple restricts multitasking on the iPhone in part to prevent applications from interfering with each other or hogging limited memory, battery and CPU resources. The webOS developers wouldn't go into details, but they say Palm has addressed those issues.

"I think you always run the risk of a programmer running amuck," says Eric Marthinsen, a partner at Agile Commerce, a Lexington, Mass., development shop that specializes in building custom, Web-based systems for start-ups. Agile has been working with webOS and Mojo since early January. "But the way Palm has approached multitasking is very smart. It really mitigates that risk."

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