There's a whole lot of misinformation on the web right now about reasons why HP had troubles with the TouchPad and eventually had to abandon the entire webOS hardware division. We'd moved on internally after yesterday's news but a bunch of stuff that popped up online today prompted a quick discussion about the realities of webOS hardware.

It's Not Qualcomm's Fault

Someone somewhere started this idea that by using Qualcomm hardware the TouchPad and presumably Veer/Pre 3 were handicapped. The theory is that by using Qualcomm hardware HP somehow limited performance of these devices and made it very difficult to run on devices that used other, non-Qualcomm SoCs.

Time for a reality check.

Palm's webOS launched on TI's OMAP 3. The original Palm Pre ran on an OMAP 3430. In fact, I did a quick head to head between it and the iPhone 3GS when it came out given the similar specs of the 3430 and Apple's 3rd generation SoC.

The Palm Pixi, on the other hand, used a Qualcomm MSM7x27 SoC. At the same time, the Palm Pre Plus was available with the same OMAP 3430 as the original Pre. Here we have two different SoCs which themselves implement different versions of the ARM instruction set (the MSM7x27 runs ARMv6, OMAP 3430 runs ARMv7), and yet it was possible to port the current version of webOS between two different SoCs from different vendors running different ARM instruction versions entirely. 

Morover, webOS 2.0 is fundamentally the same beast at an OS level as webOS 1.x. The Pre Plus and original Pre can run webOS 2.x just fine (with appropriately changed radio firmware), an OS originally intended for the OMAP 3630 in the Pre 2 and the HP Veer's MSM7230. Porting between different SoCs thus isn't entirely impossible - already we're up to webOS 1.x and 2.x running on 4 different SoCs. It's reasonable to say that porting is actually relatively easy. 

In fact, while doing the HP Veer review and poking around inside webOS 2.1.2, we found numerous references and plugins which were definite remnants of OMAP3 compatibility. This isn't a surprise at all considering that the Pre 2 likewise runs webOS 2.1.0.

It's not flip-a-switch trivial to port between SoCs, but it's not shoe-eating impossible, either. Apple, NVIDIA, TI and Qualcomm all implement the same ARMv7 instruction set in their latest SoCs (with the exception, again, of the Pixi's MSM7x27 which used ARMv6), and thus code compiled for one processor should run just fine on another. There are differences in terms of power management and what other instruction set extensions are supported (e.g. ARM's NEON SIMD extension, or thumb, vfpv3, and others) but these are minor in the big scheme of things. They require development time, but presumably the webOS team has (or is it had, now?) developers on staff whose responsibilities were to smooth over these differences.

Respective Extensions from cat /proc/cpuinfo:

Processor : ARMv7 Processor rev 2 (v7l)
Features : swp half thumb fastmult vfp edsp thumbee neon vfpv3
Processor : ARMv7 Processor rev 2 (v7l)
Features : swp half thumb fastmult vfp edsp neon vfpv3
Processor : ARMv7 Processor rev 1 (v7l)
Features : swp half thumb fastmult vfp edsp thumbee neon 
Processor : ARMv6-compatible processor rev 5 (v6l)
Features : swp half thumb fastmult vfp edsp java 

One of the bigger issues in porting between these SoCs has to do with graphics drivers. While all of the aforementioned companies implement the same ARM instruction set, they all use very different GPUs. Each GPU requires its own driver, no different than on an notebook or a desktop. In the Windows world it's like driver heaven, every major GPU has a driver available for every major version of Windows. In the mobile space it's a bit more complicated.

Because there's an Adreno 220 driver for Android doesn't mean that one exists for iOS or webOS. To a certain extent, each OS needs its own driver. Granted there can be a lot of code reuse thanks to similar standards existing across the OSes (OpenGL ES 2.0 for example is on all three OSes) but here's another area where development time is required.

There are other differences as well between SoCs. Differences such as what video encoders the OS will use for camera input to encode both JPEG and MPEG video. What decoders onboard the SoC to use for video playback or flash video acceleration. Where and how big the SDRAM is. What interfaces (I2C, SPI, GPIO and USB) are to be used for accelerometer, ambient light, gyro, pressure, or compass sensors. Which of those I/O ports are used for controllers for the touch panel, backlight, LED, vibrate and WLAN. All of these are considerations that make moving an OS between not just SoCs but hardware platforms, something that initially seems daunting but really amounts to pointing things in the right direction and including the right kernel drivers. Thankfully since webOS is linux based, the kernel should take care of a huge percentage of that difficulty and largely make any SoC that Android runs on a potential host for webOS. 

In the end, while it does require work to port webOS to various SoCs it has not only been done in webOS history but it's a small part of the work required to bring a new tablet or phone to market. If this were an insurmountable task then we wouldn't see Android working on every single major SoC released.

It's Really Not Qualcomm's Fault
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  • LoneWolf15 - Saturday, August 20, 2011 - link

    "There is a clear pattern of bias among his reviews where Quadcomm was always favored, and other chipmakers were marginalized even criticized."*

    * - Citation needed.
  • MrSewerPickle - Saturday, August 20, 2011 - link

    Agreed. If you are an unknown source calling into question the validity of a highly known and respected source then you need facts. Otherwise save it for Facebook or Twitter or where ever else you post non fact based comments.
  • jmcb - Sunday, August 21, 2011 - link

    I have yet to see what you're talking about. And I've been reading on this site for a few years....before I even knew what chips went inside of phones...or even knowing cpus, gpu's were even being used at all in phones.
  • Griswold - Tuesday, August 23, 2011 - link

    Cant spell Qualcomm right but accuses him of being paid by Qualcomm.
  • softdrinkviking - Saturday, August 27, 2011 - link

    pro11y just a troll. I mean, he really pulled that out of his a$$. Just wants attention.
  • jjj - Friday, August 19, 2011 - link

    HP is about to start selling the Touchpad for 100/150$ (16/32 gigs model).
    Bestbuy Canada already is
  • Brian Klug - Friday, August 19, 2011 - link

    I've got Amazon set on check4change in Firefox for when the updated pricing goes live there (supposed to be 8/20). I wonder whether they will also drop the Veer in pricing.

    I was excited for the Pre 3 too, too bad it'll never see the light of day in the USA. Maybe they'll liquidate those stocks too, they must exist somewhere.

  • lorribot - Friday, August 19, 2011 - link

    What worries me is that HP want to turn themselves in to a software company rather than hardware yet it is the lack of software development that has let them down with the whole Palm WebOS piece.

    Hardware is probably the thing that HP has generally done well, granted there isn't the money there any more, but really HP and software what have they ever done in that field?
    VMS, HP-UX remember them? Most of their stuff is crippled by poor development (WebJet admin still won't install on Windows 7) and lack of polish with clunky and flake UIs (WebOS anyone?)
  • z0mb13n3d - Friday, August 19, 2011 - link

    While the article is quite thorough and does give a reasonable explanation of the unfortunate state of webOS, I am more than a bit surprised as to why Anandtech thought it needed to 'clear the air' here. This isn't the first time (and will certainly not be the last) where folks in blogs or forums throughout the internet blame a random vendor for something, but for Anandtech to come out 'defending' a company (Qualcomm in this case) is a bit alarming.

    I've been reading tech blogs and sites ever since they started more than a decade ago and have always been a regular AT reader because of the unbiased nature of your articles and also because AT never really sides with any brand, vendor or company. I sincerely hope this article does not signal a change in the way AT handles reviews and articles in future!
  • sprockkets - Friday, August 19, 2011 - link

    Why it is a bit "alarming"? Either qualcomm or hp would come out looking bad, so either way would it look bad to you?

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