It’s like WebOS all over again

So a long time ago, Palm had a pretty neat idea: there’s web applications almost literally everywhere, so why can’t we start using them directly on hardware?

(Note that I have no idea if this was the actual question they asked, but for my purposes, it’s good enough.)

From this they created WebOS, which ran on their Pre phones.

WebOS was pretty freaking awesome. Everything on the hardware was exposed through a pretty nice JavaScript API; you could play music, access location, dial the phone, check email, contact instant messaging services, whatever. The UI was created entirely with HTML and CSS, and they shipped a pretty nice set of “widgets” (basically, CSS and JavaScript) to quickly add UI elements.

There were tons of features that were really, really genius on the Palm, that has yet to be copied to Android, iPhone, or WinPhone. If nothing else, I still believe that the Palm/WebOS touch-based interaction was so much farther ahead and just damn better than all the others.

Anyway, it wasn’t all sweetness and light. There were … problems:

  • They used a forked version of the otherwise wonderful WebKit, that never quite worked just like the iPhone or Android browsers, so you had to deal with yet another layout engine.
  • Their JavaScript engine was JavaScriptKit, which is a good engine but at the time it wasn’t as fast as, say, v8. Today the benchmarks war is often one of increments but at the time, it was provably slower.
  • At the time, people were raving over a bunch of games and apps (mostly on the iPhone) that simply aren’t possible with HTML5 today, much less 2009. Need proof? See this list. Show me HTML5 versions of those apps. Hell, show me Flash versions of those apps.
  • jwz detailed his difficulties in getting one of the first apps onto their app store, among other problems.

Palm eventually gave in and shipped a sort of “native” runtime, allowing developers to ship C/C++/whatever apps.

You could make small complaints about the hardware, as well: AAPL was really hitting their design stride in 2009, and the Pre was a noble but ultimately failed effort to make a device that really stands out. It was really good but only when placed against the not-an-iPhone pack.

(Daring Fireball has some thoughts from mid–2009 that are pretty spot-on.)

Ultimately I think had Palm been competing in a world without the iPhone, it would be the #1 device today. They just didn’t get a critical mass of developers to attact enough users, because everyone was gaga over the iPhone.

So what’s this got to do with anything? Well, there’s this: Boot2Gecko. The tl;dr is simple: “Take WebOS and s/WebKit/Gecko/g”. It’s the same story as WebOS.

Seriously. Watch this presentation and tell me, that’s not the same stuff Palm said 3 years ago.

I really wish someone from Mozilla would explain how their thing is going to be any different, other then they have experience making “web APIs”. They’re not even targeting a hardware platform, like Palm did; so they are already 1 step behind Palm, who at least had a reference platform and “total package” right out of the gate.

I’ve reverted to Firefox and Tbird lately, because Safari is going through yet another spurt of growing pains and Google can kiss my ass. It’s pretty amazing how Firefox has been able to turn the ship and go from crashy bloatware to speedy; just a year ago Firefox was basically unusuable for me (and if Chrome’s adoption is any indicator, a lot of people) but I’m actually pretty content these days. I imagine others would, too, but they’ve already leapt on board of Chrome and one browser switch per generation is enough for most people, especially if the story is simply “hey, it sucks less now”.

So I’d really like to know why I should bet the farm on Boot2Gecko; why I should tell my bosses, “No way, you guys, the future isn’t Android and iPhone, it’s gonna be this MozillaPhone thing”. I’d really like to know how they’re going to overcome all the problems that killed Palm.

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