Would I Return to webOS?


Update (7/4/2011): Looking at the apps available at launch, things haven’t improved a bit on the webOS front. Here’s Precentral’s top 15 list of TouchPad apps. I know I’ll get dinged for being negative, but seeing a QVC app in that list doesn’t evoke a great deal of confidence.

I’ve been too busy to post much lately, but I’ve been asked this question enough times that I thought I’d take a few minutes to answer: what Android apps keep me on the platform? Put another way, what apps does webOS need to have before I’d return to that platform. Certainly, that’s the most pertinent question, because hardware doesn’t yet weight heavily in favor of webOS. HP will have to do something pretty spectacular pretty soon to make me switch from my Asus Transformer based on hardware capabilities alone.

There are two answers to the question of what apps are important to me. The first is to provide a list of apps that I currently use on Android and that I’d need to see on webOS before I’d switch back. I’ll do that in a moment.

The other is to say that it’s not just today’s apps, but rather the general health of the app ecosystem, that matters to me. When a new app is released, more and more often it’s released simultaneously in iOS and Android versions. In some cases, the Android version actually comes first, and sometimes has a better feature set than the iOS version. Simply put, when webOS is routinely included in that list, I’ll consider it to be a viable option.

The bottom line is that what makes a smartphone (or tablet) valuable is what a user can do with it. By itself, no mobile operating system–no matter how superior, as with webOS–is of much use beyond email, Web browsing, managing time, and making phone calls (i.e., the built-in apps). It’s the third-party apps that extend a smartphone and make it truly useful, even in ways a user may not imagine on his own. That’s the power of a strong app ecosystem, and that’s what webOS has lacked from the very beginning. The recent news that the TouchPad won’t offer document editing until sometime later in the summer is just another example of the greatest weakness of an otherwise outstanding platform.

But for those who’ve asked, here’s the list of the apps that I use on my Samsung Epic smartphone and Asus Transformer tablet. Until each and every one of these apps or app categories are available on webOS in the same quality as the Android alternative, I’ll remain an Android user.

ebook reader clients: I need access to these ebook ecosystems: Barnes & Noble Nook (I have an original Nook 3G), Kindle, Google Books, and Kobo. Period. Any platform I use has to have all of them, or it doesn’t work for me.

Office document editing: I use Quickoffice on the Epic and Polaris Office on the Transformer. As a writer, the ability to edit Word docs is key, and access to a number of different apps is important because they all do some things better than others.

Evernote: There’s a webOS version of the ubiquitous Evernote client, but it’s only just barely functional. The Android Evernote client on both the phone and on Honeycomb (Android 3.X) tablets is much better. I use Evernote exhaustively, and so a quality version offering things like offline note storage and rich text editing is important to me.

Shazam/SoundHound: I often find myself hearing a song that I like, with no idea of the artist or title. Shazam and SoundHound are outstanding apps that work in different scenarios (Shazam for mainstream, SoundHound for indie, mostly), and to me represent the kind of rich apps that aren’t vital but enhance a smartphone’s “casual usefulness” and overall fun.

Twitter: Pretty much every platform has a number of decent Twitter apps, and this is perhaps the one category where webOS holds its own. I use TweetCaster on both the Epic and the Transformer, and particularly like the Honeycomb beta version. If you want a nice Honeycomb widget, however, you’ll want to look at the latest Plume beta.

Newsgroup reader: I get most of my news from RSS feeds, and so a newsgroup reader is vital. I use GoodNews on the Epic and Newsr on the Transformer. webOS has a few good RSS feaders, although apps that can sync with Google Reader are fewer and farther between. I could survive on webOS in this category, although I wouldn’t be too excited about it.

Audible client: I don’t listen to audiobooks that often, but when I have a need to do so it’s good to have an Audible client. There’s no such client yet for webOS.

Music streaming: This is a mixed bag for all platforms, with the industry undergoing some serious changes. Android has a number of good options, from subscription services like Rhapsody, to music lockers like Amazon MP3 and Google Music Beta, to streaming services like Pandora. webOS has a few as well, but for now the options are severely limited.

Google properties: I’ve grown accustomed to using Maps, Navigation, Goggles, Shopper, Earth, Translate, Voice, and other Google properties, and of course those work best and most completely on Android. From the experience with Google Maps on webOS, it’s not looking like HP’s platform will get much Google support, and it’s an open question whether HP will be able to build or outsource competitive alternatives.

Barcode scanners: When I’m shopping in brick and mortar stores, I like to see if someone else close by (or online) might have a given product for a better price. I use ShopSavvy, RedLaser, and Google Shopper to make sure I’m getting the best deal. webOS has no barcode scanners, in part because no shipping webOS product has had a camera capable of capturing a barcode. We’ll see how quickly these apps appear once the Pre 3 arrives with its autofocus camera that presumably will be able to take macro shots. Of course, the TouchPad has no rear camera, and so it’s not relevant at all here.

Podcasts: webOS has the outstanding drPodder app, and that’s good enough for listening to podcasts. I use Google Listen on both the Transformer and Epic, although I’ve been experimenting with BeyondPod as well.

Cloud syncing: I use both DropBox and SugarSync on the Epic and Samsung, and would standardize on SugarSync completely if it weren’t for a Honeycomb bug that makes locally synced copies impractical. I know one of the cloud syncing services supports webOS, I just can’t remember which one.

Alternative browsers: The stock Android browser is typically good enough, but as on the desktop, sometimes one browser handles a page better than another. That’s why I currently have other browsers installed, including Firefox, Dolphin, and Skyfire.

Alternative keyboards: Virtual keyboards are as personal as physical keyboards. Some people like to swipe instead of hitting individual keys, and Swype works well for them. Others like really good predictive text, and the Swiftkey X Beta is uncanny in how it knows what I’m going to type before I do. I also really like Thumb Keyboard on the Transformer, for a nice split key layout that works well in landscape tablet mode.

Alternative launchers: If you’re like me, you enjoy customizing your user interfaces. I do it on my Windows machines, and I do it on the Epic and Transformer. Fortunately, one of the best things about Android is how easy it is to customize. My launcher of choice at the moment is Launcher Pro, and it works well.

Gaming: Pretty much all platforms offer good gaming, although iOS owns a commanding lead. Some popular games have been migrating to Android lately, and of course webOS is a mixed bag in this regard. Because there are so many, and individual preferences weigh in here, I’ll not bother listing games in this particular post. Maybe I’ll create a new one dedicated to the games I like best on the Epic and Transformer, although I’ll note that some outstanding Tegra 2-optimized games have been released and are well worth looking into.

Miscellaneous: There are a number of other apps that I regularly use on the Epic and Transformer, and that may or may not exist either precisely or in general on webOS. But the variety is what counts here: while you don’t always need 20 different versions of an app, some apps do better at some things than others. We’re all different, and so having access to a wide variety of apps means that we’re far more likely to find one that meets our specific needs.

Photoshop Express: for light photo editing

Ultimate To-Do List: use this for syncing tasks with Toodledo.com

Chrome to Phone: sends Web pages to mobile devices via a browser extensions on Chrome and Firefox browsers

Runkeeper: tracks my exercise sessions, which pretty much amount to walking my dog (I really need to do something about that

MyFitnessPal: tracks what I eat (in my case to make sure I get enough calories)

CoPilot Live: a navigation app that stores maps locally and thus doesn’t require a data connection

Epicurious: for planning meals and accessing recipes

ezPDF: for reading and, more important, annotating PDF files

GoodReads: for finding out what other people with similar tastes are reading

Layar: a really fun augmented reality app, which of course is impossible on the TouchPad with no rear camera

Movies: aka Flixster, use it to find out all about current and upcoming movies and times

IMDB: use it to research movies, casts, writers, etc., primarily to settle bets

PlayOn Mobile: great app for streaming Netflix and Hulu (standard) to the Epic and Transformer

WordPress: for posting to my various WordPress blogs, of course

Pulse: a nice graphical news and RSS reader, which I use on the Transformer

Taptu: another nice graphical news and RSS reader (Transformer)

News360: yet another nice graphical news and RSS reader (Transformer)

Tapatalk: forum reader and writer

WebMD: for looking up symptoms and first aid information

I think that’s most of what I use on an ongoing basis. Obviously, some apps get used more than others, and there are duplicates in there because some work better for some things than others. And really, it’s the variety and constantly updating nature of the Android Market that’s so attractive.

On that note, a pet peeve: I’ve had many people challenge me on whether I really “need” all of these apps, as if my decision to leave webOS for Android was somehow inherently irrational. Their argument has been that I only “want” all of these apps, and that webOS actually offers everything any smartphone user actually “needs.”

Of course, this is a ridiculous argument, for a number of reasons. First, want and need are highly subjective, that is, they depend entirely on one’s circumstances. For example, I absolutely need to be able to edit Office documents on the go, and to have access to all four major ebook ecosystems. For others, those uses might be meaningless. Second, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s “want” or “need” that’s driving one’s decision–there’s simply no reason to accept limitations when strong alternatives exist. Yes, I don’t need Shazam, but boy, I sure like having it. And that’s enough.

I’m hoping that by the time my phone upgrade rolls around, that is, January, 2012, webOS will have made some headway in the number and quality of apps available. If it does, then I’ll consider buying the best webOS smartphone that’s available on Sprint, and then looking for a webOS tablet to replace the Transformer. If not, then I’ll get a Samsung Galaxy S II, and probably replace the Transformer with the Transformer 2, or whatever it’s called.

It really is all about the apps, and I think that makes sense. A phone without a strong app ecosystem is really nothing more than a glorified feature phone, and that doesn’t work for me.


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