A decade ago, I was sitting in a folding camping chair outside a Sprint store somewhere in Central Florida. I was all alone up until an hour or so before the store opened, and the line never grew to more than a handful of people.
It was launch day for the Palm Pre, and I knew right away that the showing at my little strip mall Sprint store was a metaphor for what was to come.
Compared to the madness and hype of the iPhone launch two years earlier, the people who lined up for the Pre were few, mostly ignored, but just as passionate as iPhone fans. More so, in some ways, because smaller groups and underdogs can be more strident in their beliefs.
I’ve already written a bit about how webOS and the Pre were ahead of their time, inspiring if not directly influencing many of the features we take for granted on iPhones and Android phones today. The way you multitask, the look of your home bar, the way notifications work, universal search, wireless charging — the list of things webOS did first, and in some cases did right, on 06/06/2009 is quite long. I could get into all that again, but not today.
(Just typing out the date there reminds me that one of the ways you could put webOS phones into developer mode was just opening search and typing “webos20090606.” You could also — and I am dead serious about this — type out the Konami Code: upupdowndownleftrightleftrightbastart. It was that kind of platform.)
Even Android, the ostensibly “open” operating system, was (and is) radically more locked-down than webOS. It’s not just that most Android phones have traditionally had locked bootloaders and are limited by other carrier shenanigans, it’s that hacking on Android was significantly harder. You had to hook it up to your computer and install custom ROMs, you had to have a huge amount of technical knowledge to build or modify them — and you still do today.
By comparison, modifying webOS was a piece of cake. And it was made even better because something incredibly special happened around webOS in 2009. Something that, when I allow myself to brag, I take some small measure of credit for: we formed a vibrant, healthy, supportive, and fun community online.
In 2009, I was the head of a network of smartphone websites then called Smartphone Experts (now they’re called Mobile Nations). Back then, the kinds of websites I ran were much more common than they are now. Each was focused on a single smartphone platform and was a mix of news, reviews, commerce, service, and community. I was a journalist, but I since I was running the biggest site about Palm, I also was a big part of that community.
The site for webOS was called PreCentral.net and it grew out of an older community that was started in 1999 by Marcus Adolfsson, VisorCentral. And it might seem strange in this age of Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook, but back then the old school vBulletin forums were the best place to talk about those phones and a simply delightful place to hang out.
The biggest part of that community was simply those forums, where we chatted and helped each other troubleshoot problems. But there was also a large group of people who worked diligently and ethically to create a community around customizing webOS. It was called webOS Internals and I was lucky enough to work closely with them to make sure the Palm community understood what they were doing — because what they did was really special.
Alongside the official Palm app store for webOS, webOS Internals put together tools that allowed third-party app stores and third-party customizations — Preware. With their help, I built an App Gallery on PreCentral that hosted over 7,000 apps and accounted for over 111 million downloads. Early on — and just try to imagine Apple or Google doing this — Palm provided us with a XML feed of its App Catalog so we could have a comprehensive list of every single webOS app on our site, regardless of how you installed it.
As some of you may know, I met my wife through this community (and later had to disclose when she took a job at Palm and now have to disclose that she currently works for Oculus). I made friends for life in that community, and I know other people did the same. I know this sounds really corny — but the whole community was just nice to each other and felt tangibly different than the “fanboy wars” that were already simmering between Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry fanatics (sorry friends, love you but it’s true).
Probably for the rest of my life, I’ll be associated with this platform — whenever I post about it my social media mentions blow up with nostalgia. A lot of that is simply that we all feel special because we were in the know, using a platform that was ahead of its time. But for some of us, the nostalgia for that doomed, super buggy operating system is actually nostalgia for something else: a time when you could find a like-minded group of friendly people online before the acrimony that has become the defining feature of most social media today.