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Semaphore Enyo Workshop and Open webOS Hackathon Report
By Hervé St-Louis
October 16, 2012 - 09:38

By now, webOS fans have heard the news and viewed the video about the porting of Open webOS on a Samsung Slate 7 touchscreen computer, but there was more to that at the event I organized as part of one of Semaphore Lab’s series of mobile talks. Semaphore Labs is a research cluster at the Faculty of Information, better known as the iSchool, at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Canada. HP sent us Roy Sutton from the former Palm/webOS group currently renamed Gram to lead both the Enyo and the Open webOS hackathon.

The Enyo Advantage

So why did Semaphore Lab organize the Enyo workshop and the Open webOS hackathon? Semaphore Lab researches inclusive design. I was more interested in observing the process of a budding mobile development platform trying to establish itself as an industry standard in a very competitive field and after nearly failing as a commercial product. The team at Gram, which is composed of whatever was left from Palm and the webOS Global Unit, is trying to push Enyo as a development platform using HTML5 and JavaScript for developers to use when making mobile and Web apps. There are other frameworks out there. In my estimation, the biggest competitor to Enyo is Sencha Touch. Where Enyo differs from Sencha Touch is that there is no tiered support available (for now). Enyo is also free to download. Sencha Touch is a commercial product with a free version, which in my experience working with it lacks a coherent way to help developers easily start developing apps. Only after having struggled on one app, can the average developer claim to know something tangible about the framework. In terms of information flow, the team at Sencha Touch has a different outlook than HP. Palm has long been open and supportive of community involvement in the development of webOS and other technologies, since it started focusing on using Web technologies to power mobile devices. This has helped them gain a very supportive developer community that has remained steady and continued to tweak and thinker with webOS-related technologies despite the poor commercial fortunes of Palm devices. The knowledge generated by this community is shared and reused by HP, but can also benefit members of the community and even competitors at large. Of note, Open webOS is distributed under an Apache 2 open license. While using public technologies, Sencha does not seek to distribute its knowledge back to the pool. It genuinely added and created a unique framework based on HTML5 and JavaScript. Just because it used public technologies does not mean that any original intellectual property it generated with them has to be returned to the commons. However, in terms of market reach, it may not have a sustaining and open community of developers sharing and borrowing ideas from one another. Instead, the typical Sencha Touch developer who worked so hard to acquire knowledge of the platform or paid for support from Sencha may want to keep his knowledge to himself. Having experienced Sencha Touch, I wonder if using a framework with a steep learning curve and an unfriendly user interface for development is supportive of the development of a standard used by grassroots developers. Would Sencha Touch’s reach improve if its tools were easier to master? Sencha wants to portray itself as a company that delivers solutions for Fortune 100 companies. Therefore, it seems relevant that part of its strategy to obfuscate the information around their technologies to allow developers working for accounts with big budgets to justify their spending on services.

A Visual Language Standard

While there are no plans about how Gram will market Enyo, it was originally conceived as a development framework for webOS apps. Now, just like Sencha Touch, it is a cross-platform framework whose main appeal to developers attending the Semaphore Lab workshop was to eliminate the needs to worry about user interface design and development while providing a robust solution for programming apps. Enyo is based on the ubiquitous and popular design language introduced in webOS and because of its cross-platform features, allow webOS’s visual language to become a standard on other platforms. Research in Motion (RIMM) makers of the Blackberry have already, shown interest in Enyo for the development of HTML5-based apps, as reported by Sutton during the workshop. Already apps made with Enyo have been deployed on iOS, Android and Windows Phone.

Although webOS has been deemed a market failure, imposing its design language as a standard on various platforms has the potential to create a cuckoo’s effect. Sencha Touch, on the other hand, has no specific or unique visual language of its own that differs much from what is done by other frameworks. Visually, it is less exceptional than purely graphic interface frameworks such as Twitter’s Bootstrap or JQuery Mobile. If there is anything that screams Sencha Touch, it’s the word bland. Sencha Touch failed to establish a unique language of its own as it wanted to be deemed a perfect cross-platform mobile development tool.

webOS was already liked by many because of the particular way it expressed its skeuomorph visual language and added more to the table visually than RIMM or Google’s Android. For example, its sliding panels which maximize the information displayed on a small screen buck the trend used by many responsive design frameworks such as Bootstrap to organize information vertically by pushing side panels downward. Instead, information on multiple panels is organized horizontally and can be introduced and pushed aside by users as needed, without forcing them to scroll down an indeterminate rabbit hole. This is a logical extension of the webOS visual language which introduced a card-based metaphore for multitasking on a mobile device that to this day has remained the best way of visualizing large amount of information across several apps. The advantage of the webOS visual language promoted by Enyo is that it could be adapted to metro-interfaces easily without distorting the flow of information introduced. RIMM is reportedly using a similar visual language in BlackBerry 10.

Of interest to me, is how Enyo will do against competing development platforms promoted by the likes of Microsoft for Windows 8 and Google. Microsoft has a lot of experience in delivering development solutions to enterprise developers and it can be argued that it has not promoted grassroots development as well in the past, despite a clear and intended focus on educational clients. HP here is going straight to the commons and unstructured development community that lies outside of the enterprise market. In doing so, it’s sidestepping Sencha and Microsoft (for now). The closest analogy to what HP is doing through Gram/Palm is the bring your own device movement (BYOD) that enterprise have had to adapt to in the last few years. Years ago, corporate and institutional organizations provided their employees with phones and computers. Mostly, they would provide Blackberry phones. But Apple’s iPhone and Android-based phones have forced organizations to rethink their strategies and allow employees to use their own devices. Tablet-based computing exacerbated the trend. Suddenly, the iPhone and Nexus are the mobile tools used by organizations that can no longer force standards on their employees. They  have to adapt to their needs instead. In a way technology in co-constitutional and no longer controlled by technology offices within organizations. Users impose their own standards. Perhaps HP is trying to reach out to developers in the same way by providing them with a development solution that is thorough and pleasant to use, hoping to buck the enterprise push of the likes of Microsoft. Instead of pushing solutions on their development teams. technology departments within organizations may see themselves being pulled by their crews towards solutions such as Enyo. If HP is smart, it will create a sales team to push Enyo to enterprise, and thus attack the market on both ends, from the top and from the bottom. If I were Sencha right now, I’d try to get Google, Oracle or RIMM to purchase me as there may not be much breathing room left.

Open webOS Hackathon

The Open Hackathon was a non event in that Roy Sutton had already garnered support from the Open webOS Port group, which consist of independent developers trying to port Open webOS on various devices. This team did all of the work for the presentation prior the hackathon, reducing the event to merely a showcase for an unannounced port to a new platform. That meant that the event ended quickly and that there were no hands on component where participants could just hack webOS onto a device. Hence the announced port to an unspecified Android device did not occur as we used a tablet computer running an Intel processor and Microsoft Windows 7. Sutton used a partition located on a USB key to boot the device after having had to compile Open webOS for close to 30 hours in preparation of the hackathon. Had he not prepared this in advance, the participants at the hackathon would not have made any progress! The initial build up of Open webOS is time consuming, however, following updates are shorter and easier to deploy. Porting Open webOS is not easy to do. Many limits include the lack of information on drivers for components such as cameras, WI-FI, accelerometers, audio elements such as microphones and speakers. Again, HP’s openness and flexibility with the developer community around webOS-related technologies is paying off and creates a symbiotic model that shows how large corporations can work with communities in establishing information standards.

Hervé St-Louis is a PhD student at the Semaphore Lab, a research cluster at the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto. Saint-Louis successfully defended his master’s thesis in strategic studies in January 2011, a few days before the eruption of the Arab Spring. His master’s thesis was titled Strategic Studies and Cyberspace Iranian Political Unrest on Twitter. Saint-Louis’s research at the Faculty of Information focuses on cyber security and mobile technologies. He is also the founding publisher of ComicBookBin.

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