If you’re shopping for a smart TV, you might find the word WebOS and perhaps a version number listed in the features. That raises a question. What is WebOS on a TV, and should you care? Possibly.
What is WebOS?
If you have a long memory, you may remember Palm. Palm made pre-smartphone handheld organizers that outsold Apple’s Newton in the 90s. When smartphones kicked dedicated organizers to the curb, Palm developed a mobile operating system called WebOS. It was based on the Linux kernel and provided a graphical user interface with touch capability, similar in many respects to Google’s Android. And Palm fully intended to try to compete with Android and the rest of the smartphone market. It didn’t go so well for them, and in 2010 they put the company up for sale.
In April 2010, Hewlett Packard acquired Palm to get WebOS and hatched great plans to go head to head with Apple, using WebOS to compete with all of Apple’s phones and tablets and MP3 players. Maybe HP could find some of that ’90s Palm mojo and beat Apple again.
The HP Touchpad tablet computer was a flop along the lines of the Coleco Adam and the IBM PCjr. It flopped so badly that HP pulled the plug after just two months, fired CEO Leo Apotheker, and considered getting out of not just mobile devices but even PCs and notebook computers.
HP had a grand vision for loading WebOS on its PCs alongside Windows and on any device that had a CPU in it, but that vision died with the Touchpad. HP sold off the Palm intellectual property over time, scattering it to the wind, and even released an open source edition.
But what is WebOS on a TV?
But what does any of this have to do with TVs? What is WebOS on a TV? In 2013, LG, one of the larger makers of TVs, licensed WebOS with the intent of turning it into a smart TV platform.
From LG’s point of view, putting WebOS on a TV gives them more control than they would have if they simply licensed technology from someone like Roku. And it certainly fits with HP’s initial 2010 vision of loading WebOS on anything and everything. LG also loads WebOS on its smart projectors and smart refrigerators.
From your point of view, probably all you care about is whether there are apps available so you can stream content from whatever streaming providers you use, such as Netflix and Hulu. Fortunately, there are. Webos apps exist for every major streaming provider I checked. You can even assign streaming apps to their own button on the remote.
And, as the name implies, WebOS does provide a web browser. I would, however, recommend you install Google Chrome and use it instead. There is a version of Chrome available for WebOS.
WebOS TVs and security
I make my living as a security professional, and we’ve been concerned about smart TV security for several years. There was a rash of LG smart TVs getting hit with ransomware a couple of years back, and in one case a security professional had to choose between paying a $500 ransom or paying LG $340 for a service call. LG eventually helped him reset the TV and didn’t charge him.
But we have other concerns too besides ransomware, such as the lack of updates most smart TVs get.
From that point of view at least, LG’s current WebOS-based TVs are better. WebOS 3.5 received a UL certification for security called UL CAP. UL’s tests ensure the TV’s application security, software falsification protection, engineer mode hacking protection, and authentication. Also, critically, you can configure the TV to check for automatic updates, so it will update itself like a PC.
I still would never buy a smart TV that contained a camera or a microphone. While it might seem cool to make video calls from your living room using your TV, I’m concerned about the possibility of a rogue application activating the camera and/or microphone. If you want to make video calls with a smart TV, use a USB webcam that you can unplug when you’re not using it. If you’ve already bought a smart TV with a built-in camera, cover the camera when you aren’t using it.
Maybe you’re OK with strangers peeking into your living room, but there are other rooms in your house you certainly wouldn’t be OK with.
Any competent security professional will tell you there is no perfect security, only acceptable risk. But an LG WebOS-based smart TV is the first smart TV I would consider buying and connecting up to my network. As long as I can find one without a camera and microphone.
What is WebOS: In conclusion
It’s somewhat ironic, perhaps, that Palm developed WebOS for 4-inch mobile screens and today LG is using it on 55-inch screens and refrigerators–basically anything immobile. Meanwhile, LG’s phones all run Android.
WebOS didn’t live up to the expectation of challenging Apple in the mobile world, but at least it’s not a completely dead project and it’s carving out a niche. Importantly, it’s one of the only so-called Internet-of-Things operating systems that seems to be making much of an effort at being secure. I have to give LG props for that.