Palm didn't just update its mobile operating system when it unveiled webOS -- it completely reinvented it. webOS is slick; it's easy on the eyes, and fun to use, too. But it's also a bit limited, both in the number of apps available for the software and in the number of handsets on which it runs.
Like the iPhone OS, Palm's webOS software is available only on Palm devices. As of this writing, there are four Palm phones that run the software: the Pre, Pixi, Pre Plus, and Pixi Plus. This restriction means that you don't -- and likely won't ever -- have the wide range of handets available to someone interested in an Android phone, for example. But what you get is consistency; using webOS on a Pre is almost exactly the same as using it on a Pixi Plus. And apps that work on a Pixi will work on a Pre Plus, too.
All of the devices that run Palm's webOS feature hardware-based keyboards, as well as touch screens that can be used to interact with the software. webOS is attractive, with bright colors and an uncluttered design that's easy to navigate.
Many of the features in webOS will be familiar to anyone who has used an iPhone. It supports multi-touch, so you can, for example, pinch and spread the screen to zoom in and out on a Web page.
But there is one area where webOS easily bests the iPhone OS: multitasking. webOS allows you to run multiple apps at once, a feature sorely lacking from the iPhone. And webOS excels at handling the multitasking feature -- each of your apps can be seen as a card, and you can flip through the deck of cards to find the one you want. You tap on the cards to bring up the app, and can use the phone's gesture area (a touch-sensitive area below the screen) to shrink the card. You also can sling the cards up and off the screen to close the apps.
webOS does not offer the extensive customization that you'll find when using the Android OS, but it offers a similar menu layout that's easy to navigate. You access the menu by tapping a small icon at the bottom of the screen; from there you can click on the small but neatly organized icons to access apps and features.
One of the best features built into webOS is the Synergy feature, which collects calendar and contact information from various sources and brings it together. If you have contacts in Facebook and Gmail, plus a Google Calendar, you can access all of them from within Synergy. It allows you to see if your contacts are online and available to chat, too.
Palm's webOS phones ship with some basic productivity apps, including a document viewer and a PDF viewer. You can find more titles in Palm's App Catalog -- its marketplace for third-party apps. But the App Catalog offers a selection that remains somewhat meager; in the several months since its launch, I would have expected more titles to appear.
Palm's webOS is elegant and eminently usable. It would benefit greatly from having more third-party apps available for it. It could also benefit from being available on a wider range of handsets. But if you like Palm's hardware and can do without an overwhelming selection of apps, you’re going to like webOS.