Summary:

A leaked image of an alleged HP webOS handset design shows something missing, and that’s a good thing: the phone appears to drop the physical keyboard. Palm never implemented a software keyboard on their otherwise excellent webOS platform, but HP looks to be making the change.

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Hewlett Packard’s upcoming webOS smartphones may be gaining something they never had when Palm was designing them: an on-screen, software keyboard. Palm never officially supported a touchscreen input system, instead relying on users to tap out text on small, slide-out keypads. However, a leaked image of a prototype webOS handset design provided to PreCentral shows a phone that’s all screen.

The design, wich PreCentral believes is a representation of handset codenamed “Stingray,” appears similar to Apple’s iPhone although there’s no physical home button. That makes sense to me because webOS devices have always had a touch-sensitive area below the display, which could be programmatically used for a home action, or any other number of activities. First generation webOS phones did have a round physical button, but it was dropped for the more recent Pre 2 and Veer handsets.

While I had my Palm Pre back in 2009, I thoroughly enjoyed using it, mainly because of the excellent webOS operating system and unique card-based approach it took for multitasking. Each app runs in its own window and you can view multiple windows in real time or simply swipe a window off the screen to close the app gracefully. To this day, I think HP still has an advantage here because of that and only Research In Motion’s PlayBook, which uses a similar multitasking system we showed on video, rivals webOS in that regard.

But among the list of problems I had with webOS was the lack of an on-screen keyboard. For any text entry at all, I had to slide out the QWERTY keypad, which is less than ideal: sometimes you simply want to tap a few times on the screen for a web search or short text message, for example. A home-brewed software keyboard eventually appeared for the Pre, but it was too late for me as I had given up on the device and sold it. With the second iteration of webOS, however, clues point to a software keyboard that some hard-working enthusiasts have enabled on older devices. With the hooks built-in to the operating system, it’s clear that HP is looking to add a software keyboard to future webOS devices.

The first look at the homebrewed keyboard, shown off in December, indicated that HP had some work to do yet. But that was months ago, so the company has had time to work out the kinks of any such software. It’s not a huge leap then that an upcoming webOS phone will lose the QWERTY, which would help boost HP’s foray into the smartphone market. Choice is good, of course. Some folks rely on hardware keyboards, while others would rather drop some thickness and weight by losing the keys. But its 2011 and many expect a top-notch mobile platform to offer a way to enter text directly on the screen when needed.

Between this news and HP’s understanding that the mobile and desktop worlds are merging, I wouldn’t count webOS out of the mix just yet. HP will need more than just a software keyboard to be successful — think of smart carrier partnerships and courting developers to build webOS apps — but don’t underestimate the importance of effective text entry on a device that’s likely to be used every waking hour of the day.

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