Dear Buddha, please bring me a pony, a plastic rocket, and a webOS netbook.
– Malcolm Reynolds, slightly paraphrased.
Rumour has it that HP does not want to build a webOS netbook. While I fully understand the reasoning behind such a decision (the target market is probably too small to justify the expense of developing, making, and marketing such a thing), I still think it is a missed opportunity.
What Palm/HP urgently need is a severe case of one-upmanship. The Prē is, in a sense, a me-too device, modeled after the iPhone. It has some differentiation to the iPhone (and I like it), but still, it largely resembles the iPhone. The coming tablet will be mostly a knock-off of the iPad; even if it were not, it would be perceived by the public in this light.
The way to conquer a market is certainly not to trail the number one company.
What Palm/HP now needs is a bold step. A new device category that has not yet been tried; at least not by Apple (Apple is now regarded as the gold standard in innovation).
I’d like to propose a new device, let’s call it Suprē (I know, I’m sorry).
The Suprē should be a netbook with webOS. That doesn’t sound innovative at all, but in contrast to other netbooks, the whole point is webOS. A system designed for touch screens. Standard netbooks are only somewhat shrunken notebooks, with their old desktop style interaction. Scratch that; the touch screen is the new interaction standard, including multi-touch gestures.
The keyboard is only an addition; but this addition could prove to be crucial. Ever tried to enter long texts using an on-screen keyboard? It’s no fun, and it’s slow. Imagine a webOS device that has a reasonably usable keyboard attached, but is primarily a mini-tablet. You’d use it like an iPad, as long as you don’t want to enter text, but for text, you’d use the physical keyboard.
The Prē has a physical keyboard, but it’s ridicously tiny and therefore offers no advantage over an on-screen keyboard. But a keyboard that could be used for touch typing is something quite different – it’s a new quality.
So, a netbook with a reasonably sized keyboard, a multi-touch screen, a long battery life, and webOS, doesn’t seem revolutionary, but it would make a difference. There are many people who could use such a device (the netbook market sprung up over night because it fulfilled a need).
The changes necessary wouldn’t be that drastic: Prē and Pixi already have a physical keyboard, it’s just the wrong size. The most difficult thing would be the display resolution, or more precisely, the aspect ratio: a reasonable design would have a ratio of 5:2 (instead of 2:3 for a Prē; but many applications already work with 3:2). And the screen would be larger, meaning the same problems as the transition from iPhone to iPad. But a webOS tablet would have exactly the same problems, so they need to be solved only once; in fact, Palm/HP is already working on it.
And if the Suprē were to include the necessary development tools, I’d be more than happy. That would be a real killer machine. The target market would be limited, but an important group so addressed would be hackers. And those mean leverage for any platform. So why not for webOS?
The traditional pitch for a keyboard is 19 mm × 19 mm per key. With a standard keyboard this gives a size of 274 mm × 105 mm. A slightly smaller pitch of 18 mm × 18 mm would still be feasible for touch typing, giving 260 mm × 100 mm. This would define the dimensions of the device. The screen would be 240 mm × 96 mm, or a diagonal of 10.2″. It must be a multi-touch screen, using capacative sensing. A high resolution would be great, say 1536 × 614, meaning 163 dpi. A somewhat faster processor would be nice (1 GHz Snapdragon?), but to use synergy effects, it should be the same as in the tablet. The more memory, the better; 1 or 2 GByte would be nice, it’d make multi-tasking much better. And it would allow for impressive applications.
So, the hardware would be a bog-standard ARM netbook, with the exception of the multi-touch screen. The second crucial difference is webOS.
And that’s about it. No magic involved, only the software needs to be adapted. And the main challenge is the display size resp. resolution.
Did I mention that my birthday is rapidly approaching, dear HP?