All things modern.
As soon as QNX appeared on the first sneak peaks of the Blackberry Playbook way back when, opinions began to fly around how similar it looked to WebOS which has been around for a few years courtesy Palm. The fact is that these two operating systems do share alot of the basic user interface elements yet do so very differently. This article will look at the similarities and differences between the two. To do that, it would be helpful to look at a video of each.
First the Blackberry Playbook. Of course I don’t have one of these so I had to trawl the internet for a video that shows as much of the fundamental user interface as possible. Here it is:
Now for WebOS. It was more difficult to get a good video of the HP Touchpad as it has not yet been released. This is the best I could do, pretty good demonstration actually if you can block out the background noise:
This video does not show all of the UI so I have included this video of the UI on the Palm Pre, which is supposed to be identical:
Now that we have done that, let’s look at the similarities and differences. Both OSs have a home screen consisting of a top information bar, a middle section containing thumbnails of running applications and a lower bar containing applications installed on the machine. Each of these can be looked at separately.
Top information bar:
Both systems reserve a bar at the very top of the screen to display pertinent information such as time, signal strength and system status. Further, pressing on the bar allows you to change system settings such as wireless radios. On the Playbook this bar is available on the home screen or can be called up at any time by a diagonal swipe from either top corner. On WebOS this bar is available only on the homescreen. WebOS also has on its home screen a search field which is used for the universal search feature.
Both OSs pretty even in this respect.
Both systems represent open applications as a linear series of thumbnails. A gesture calls up the thumbnail view and a press on the thumbnail maximises the selected application. Additional gestures can be used to scroll through the applications and even close an application. Now there are slight differences in the implementation.
Playbook arranges the thumbnails at noticeably different sizes, allowing more of them to be displayed on the screen without compromising usability. Also, any application, not just the one in the centre of the screen can be closed by swiping up. To call up the task switcher, a swipe up from the bottom bezel is all that is required.
WebOS hits back with the ability to stack multiple thumbnails on top of each other saving screen space but obscuring much of the lower thumbnails in the pile. To call up the task switcher, the user may swipe up or press the single button on the touchpad front.
Again both OSs are pretty even in this respect.
Both OSs has its installed applications along the bottom of the screen. WebOS has a number of most frequently used applications readily accessible. To access the others, a swipe up brings us a scrollable list. The list can then be scrolled sideways which runs through different categories of application. The same applies to Playbook however on the this machine, the programs are viewed immediately in their subcategories which are denoted by tabs. The most frequently used in each category can therefore be accessed directly.
I would say this is a slight advantage to Playbook.
On a portable device, limited screen estate means that not all the options and program controls can be displayed on screen hoping that the user will be wanting to use one of them. Thus the need for an in-application menu. The old system of having two giant soft keys at the bottom of the screen is definitely last decade. Blackberry OS has solved the problem from the very start by placing a menu key on the device which called up a menu based on which application was currently in use. On the Playbook, this function is replaced by a swipe down from the top of the screen. The menu is dismissed by again swiping down, instead of up as one would expect. Now this might seem like a minor niggle, but it seems wholly unnecessary to implement this function in this way, disrupting the user experience.
WebOS requires soft keys to be placed on the application to pull up an in-application menu as done on iOS. This button takes up space on the screen which could have otherwise been used for displaying information and is this not a desirable solution.
I prefer the Playbook solution.
Both these device have capable browsers. I don’t care how much Apple wants to rave on about how Flash drains battery life, the fact is many sites today use flash and if you want to use the more advanced features on these websites, let alone watch videos, you need flash. The Playbook does come with flash as we have seen demonstrated. I don’t know about WebOS, but I will update this post when the touchpad is released in a few days.
Both OSs are indeed very similar, but this is a good thing. As fas as tablet operating systems go, both HP and RIM seem to have been the first to find what is the most ideal solution to a touch friendly and efficient UI design to date. HP (through Palm) initially had a number of years lead on this, but their marketing tactics have meant that not only has RIM caught up, but has in fact released a working product ahead of them along with a few UI refinements.
Your choice of tablet may thus very well rest on which mobile phone you use, Blackberry or Palm Pre. If you buy either the phone or tablet from one manufacturer, you would probably want the other device to match. The irony is, that RIM has beaten HP to the market with a tablet, but HP has beaten RIM to the market with the phone making this choice very difficult.
The first WebOS tablet is due out in a few days along with a new phone and the new bigger Playbook is also due out soon. On the other hand the first phones from RIM running QNX don’t seem to be on stream for any release before 2012.
It seems that by the end of summer 2011 the dust would have all settled in the tablet war at least and we should know who the winner is not just for tablets, but for the reasons stated above, smart phones as well.
I think I might just hedge my money on Blackberry given it’s bigger market share and higher profile given that all other factors cancel each other out. Sorry WebOS, but you made us wait just a tad too long.