HP/Palm Brings WebOS Back to Life, Announces TouchPad Tablet, Veer and Pre 3 Smartphones

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Palm’s WebOS operating system, seen on the Palm Pre and Pixi, is the great underdog of the mobile world: critically adored, but commercially ignored, to the point that Palm actually had to sell itself to HP to stay alive. Since we’ve last had a big WebOS announcement, Android has exploded in popularity, Microsoft entirely rebooted their platform, and the iPhone came to Verizon–so today’s announcement of the new HP (not Palm) WebOS devices is a do or die moment for WebOS. The lineup that will decide that: The Veer mini-smartphone, the Pre 3, and the TouchPad tablet.

WebOS was announced back in January 2009, in a desolate post-iPhone world. Android was still in its clumsy early stages, BlackBerry was, well, the same as BlackBerry has always been, and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile was dying. WebOS, and its first device, the Palm Pre, was a breath of fresh air: Maybe Apple’s way isn’t the only way to do a touch-based smartphone! Focused on multitasking, with a “card” based metaphor that would later be swiped by both BlackBerry and Nokia, as well as innovative features like a universal search, WebOS had a level of polish that matched the iPhone, and abilities that outstripped it.

But the Pre was hobbled with flimsy (though adorable) hardware, a small launch partner in Sprint, and a huge gap between its announcement and its actual release–by which time the iPhone 3GS had stolen all its thunder. Worst of all, Palm was slow to open up the app store to developers, so even though eventually WebOS would be a very developer-friendly environment, at launch it had 30 apps, and was maddeningly slow to expand. Despite all its strengths, the Pre was a sales failure, and eventually Palm had to allow itself to be sold.

In April 2010, HP purchased Palm, though what the company was really after was WebOS. But aside from the Pre 2 (which is basically a Pre with a faster processor), another ten months would go by before we saw a really update on WebOS. Today’s announcement shows Palm’s next line of WebOS devices–well, HP’s, we should say, since the name “Palm” is nowhere to be found on any of these devices.

The HP Veer, pictured above, is probably the most curious of the three. It’s in the original Pre shape–a pebble-inspired design with a vertical slide-out keyboard–but it’s even smaller than the already-diminutive Pre. At only 2.6 inches, the Veer is (when closed) the size of a credit card, which is in direct contrast to the current trend of larger and larger smartphones. Despite its size, it’s actually a very powerful device: It uses the same Snapdragon processor as the much bigger T-Mobile G2, and offers HSPA+, which AT&T and T-Mobile are calling 4G. (It’s not, technically, and is slower than Verizon’s LTE 4G, but it is significantly faster than 3G, so we’re not complaining too much. Check out our 4G explainer if you’re still confused.) It’ll have a relatively small 8GB of storage, but 512MB of memory–the same as the iPhone 4. It’ll be available in “early spring,” which could be very soon.

If miniaturization isn’t your thing, the flagship Pre 3 might be a better option. While the Veer is kind of a smushed Pre, the Pre 3 is stretched, pulled like saltwater taffy out to a generous 3.6 inches (with a 480 x 800 resolution, about the industry average these days). It’s still a vertical slider, but it’s got some guts that’d make the original Pre feel pretty outclassed. It’ll have the next-gen Snapdragon processor, clocked at 1.4GHz, with 512MB of memory and either 8GB or 16GB of storage. On the camera side, it’ll have a 5MP rear-facing camera for normal photos, and a front-facing camera (likely a 1.3MP sensor) for video chatting. It too will boast HSPA+ connectivity, so it looks like these two are destined for either AT&T or T-Mobile, at least at first (and we’d wager on the former). The Pre 3 will be available this summer, which is an awfully long way off. Hopefully it’ll still be impressive and in our minds then.

What we were most anticipating from this conference is a WebOS tablet. WebOS is particularly suited to a tablet, with its full previews of apps, elegant multitasking, and non-intrusive notifications system, which is probably why BlackBerry was so heavily, um, inspired by WebOS with its new PlayBook tablet. But there’s no beating the real thing, and HP’s TouchPad tablet looks mighty impressive. It’s a 9.7-incher, with very near exactly the same dimensions and weight as the iPad, but (as could be expected, given the iPad’s age) it’s much more powerful inside. The TouchPad boasts a dual-core 1.2GHz processor, 16GB or 32GB of storage, 1GB of memory (four times that of the iPad, and probably essential for this kind of multitasking), and all the usual accelerometer/compass/gyro sensors, along with both a front- and rear-facing camera for video chatting.

The TouchPad, along with the Veer and Pre 3, has full Flash support and, oddly enough, Beats by Dr. Dre audio technology (!). Basically, all of these devices should sound fantastic, which as any Android user knows is not necessarily a given on a smartphone. They’ll all also use the Touchstone charger, which was a cool little feature that has long set WebOS apart. The Pre 3, Veer, and TouchPad all support inductive charging, which is a wireless protocol using magnets that enables you to charge a device simply by plopping it onto a specific surface (in this case, a stone-shaped magnetic charger).

What’s really interesting about the TouchPad is how it interacts with the WebOS smartphones. They speak to each other in ways no other platform does–not Android, and not iOS. When a smartphone and the TouchPad are on the same Wi-Fi network, you can get text messages and phone calls on the TouchPad. Our favorite feature might be “Touch to Share.” It’s kind of similar to Google’s “Chrome to Phone” feature, but even more intuitive. If you’re, say, looking at directions on your TouchPad, and you’re heading out the door, you can simply tap the TouchPad with a Pre 3 or Veer phone, and it’ll send those directions right to your phone. Really cool stuff!

One of the best new features of the updated WebOS is the universal search, which has been renamed to Just Type–reasonably so, since it’s not just search anymore. Essentially, you can start typing anywhere, and you’ll get a list of options for what to do with what you’re typing. Search on Google? Wikipedia? IMDb? Or maybe you wanted that to be a text message, an email, or a Twitter or Facebook update? It’s all right there–no reason to open up an app first.

HP is making sure to emphasize app development this time around, showing off new apps from Facebook, Amazon (the WebOS Kindle app looks pretty great), Skype, various content providers (Dreamworks and some sort of magazine platform were shown specifically), and even the smaller developers who are so essential to a platform’s survival–including everyone’s favorite, Angry Birds.

We’re still lacking some of the key specifics: Price, release date, and carrier. Given their HSPA+ compatibility, we know the Veer and Pre 3 are headed for either AT&T or T-Mobile here in the States, and it’s a fair assumption that the Veer will come in cheaper than the Pre 3. The TouchPad is due for release this summer, but price is very pressing for a tablet these days–the iPad set the bar very, very low, and any tablet that costs more than $500 at base (we’re looking at you, Motorola Xoom) is going to be fighting an uphill battle.

The devices look pretty great–WebOS looks better than ever, early impressions of the hardware are very positive, and the new slogan (“HP WebOS: Now Available in S, M, L”) is cute. But there’s still an issue with release cycles: HP/Palm has got to stop announcing things this way. We’re excited now, but we won’t see the Veer, Pre 3, or TouchPad for months, by which time there’ll be a new iPad and more likely than not a new iPhone. Also, the impressive internals–dual core processors, lots of memory, new Snapdragons–will be merely the norm by this summer, rather than the hottest new thing. That’ll all serve to dampen excitement somewhat, which isn’t exactly what HP wants right now. Still, if HP can get its app situation under control, these will be some very competitive devices come summer.

You can check out more about the new WebOS devices at, curiously, Palm.com, where apparently they haven’t given up entirely on the venerable Palm name.