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2011-11-14

Key webOS feature: developer interest

This post argues that webOS had one key feature of a successful operating system: developer interest.

Marco Arment explains that Windows Phone 7 might never sell well:

Developers don’t rush to new platforms without very good reasons. Windows Phone won’t get widespread developer support until it sells well.
I don’t agree with that assessment. Apart from selling well, there is one other way to get developer support: Be an interesting platform.
  • The 1984 Mac OS was magical. Everyone else had character-based user interfaces, they had the first mass-market graphical user interface.
  • In 2001, Mac OS X was appealing, because it combined polished apps with Unix.
  • Windows 8 is interesting, because of a touch-first UI and its support for web technologies. I’m still skeptical about their emphasis on the clunky desktop mode. There must be a better way to scale the UI across systems.
  • webOS is intriguing due to its clever use of web technologies, including Node.js:
    One of the most compelling enhancements for developers in webOS 2.0 is the new JavaScript Services system, which is based on the Node.js framework. It will allow developers to write background services for the platform in JavaScript in addition to C. These background services will use JavaScript APIs to support native filesystem access, low-level network programming, and other capabilities that were typically done with C or Java in previous versions of webOS.

    Hayashi says that the JavaScript Services system has made it possible for Palm to replace the bits and pieces of remaining Java code in webOS with simpler and more maintainable JavaScript. They were able to drop the need for a Java runtime, thus reducing the overhead of some of the background services. Effectively, developers can now use JavaScript at every level of their application on webOS—for lower-level programming in addition to high-level application development.

    [Source: Ryan Paul for Ars Technica]
The last two examples show that if an operating system supports web technologies well, it immediately has the attention of (web) developers. And developer attention is an important factor for the success of a platform (it was all that Mac OS X initially had).

That’s why I find it especially disappointing that HP dropped their support for webOS so quickly; they had something that appealed to developers. HP is currently taking their time making “the right decision” regarding webOS’s future, while more and more people of the webOS team leave. In the words of John Gruber:

When you’re faced with a “we need to stop the bleeding” problem, you need a fast decision.

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