WebOS, where did things go wrong? One moment you're worth a "double-down" investment by HP valued at $1.2 billion, and the OS of choice for future tablets, computers and even printers; the next, you're discarded like yesterday's crusty old oatmeal. Today, HP announced -- among other things -- that it's chosen to discontinue operations for its webOS lineup, and that the company "will continue to explore options to optimize the value of webOS software going forward." So what does this all mean for the future of webOS? Have we seen the last of webOS? Join us past the break for our thoughts.
I can't say I knew it was coming, but this whole HP-Palm thing never did feel right. Paying $1.2 billion to shove a circle into a square never struck me as the most brilliant move (speaking strictly as a Palm admirer, and not an HP shareholder), and when an enterprise-loving Hurd was booted for a man with even deeper enterprise roots (yeah, I'm talking about Leo), I lost even more interest in HP. Turns out, Leo never did have much interest in reviving the consumer's view of his own company -- let alone the outfit Jon Rubinstein must be sobbing over at this very moment.
It's tragic, really. Loads of software jobs are bound to be lost, and one of the strongest competitors to Windows Phone 7, iOS and Android is all but dead. Do you really expect a developer to waste another moment of his or her life building programs for an all-but-defunct platform? Sure, HP's paying lip service to the whole thing by confessing that it's evaluating licensing options for the platform, but only a company with more money than sense would attempt to sell a webOS device now. Palm couldn't do it. HP couldn't do it. The odds aren't exactly in the favor of whoever tries it next.
I always thought webOS was a tremendous platform with dreadful hardware options, and a developer community that was entirely too thin. But by selling to HP, Palm purchased an assisted suicide. I asked Sprint's top brass earlier this year if we could expect to see the Pre 3 hit The Now Network, and if the relationship with webOS / HP was still strong. They beat around the bush with expert precision, and now I know why. The Pre 3 isn't exactly HP's version of the N9, but even finding one to review stateside is apt to be a chore. Look, I'm bitter about the whole thing. I'm bitter when enterprise-facing companies buy consumer gems, only to usher them into the grave months later. I already saw this happen with Cisco's stabbing of the Flip camcorder line; now, it's happening again.
So, heads-up: the next time a company consumers couldn't care less about buys a company that consumers care deeply about, feel free to get the obituary in order. Meanwhile, I'll be in the corner, weeping softly.
Sure it's sad to see webOS set aside for a bunch of suits, but HP hasn't exactly delivered anything mind-blowing in terms of consumer hardware since its acquisition of Palm, and frankly, the slow death of the brand wasn't exactly encouraging. HP knows printers, and it knows the enterprise, and we're probably all better off with it sticking to what it knows. Perhaps HP's move to consider all of its options will result in a licensing deal that will give webOS a body to match its brains, and maybe this is the end of an era. The real question here is: who's going to sign Lea Michele's next endorsement check?
Well, apparently "the tablet effect is real," but for some reason HP is getting ready to abandon its finger-friendly baby... it's $1.2 billion, finger-friendly baby. Frankly, it's not terribly surprising given Android and iOS's dominance in the marketplace (and of developer time). Still, it's somewhat strange that just a few months ago we were promised webOS on every HP PC, and now it may end up licensed to in-car entertainment systems, if we're lucky. With the more slate friendly Windows 8 quickly approaching, I suppose it makes sense to cut your losses and focus on a more mature ecosystem, but it's still sad to see such a well designed platform die before it's had a chance to really show what it's capable of. At this point I'd argue the best thing HP can do is open-source WebOS and hope it finds a second life as Netscape did when Mozilla got a hold of it.
Is it just me, or does webOS seem like the poor little kitten that gets passed around from family to family because it keeps getting into trouble? So unloved, webOS is. It causes me to reflect on what possibly could've gone wrong with the struggling platform. I was actually in support of HP's acquisition of Palm up until the company did... well, absolutely nothing with it. The potential was there; HP came running out of the gate with all these interesting ideas of what to do with the OS, such as stretching the platform out across several mediums like computers and printers, and ultimately couldn't make it work.
But what was the reason it didn't work? Was it because webOS is a terrible platform? Absolutely not. It's a respectable OS that's still unknown (and has very little dev support), but the HP acquisition was supposed to make it succeed because the company not only knows how to market its products, it has the dough to support it. Once the first fruits of the acquisition started pushing through, it was clear that HP either didn't care about the devices it was launching or it didn't know what to do with them. Indeed, instead of launching its flagship phone and tablet first, it opted for the Veer 4G -- a smartphone which, quite frankly, was destined to sell poorly (and had the subpar reviews to back up those sales). The TouchPad and Pre 3 were the darlings of the HP lineup, and were continually delayed. Even when the tablet finally did make it to market, it was riddled with bugs. Whatever HP's strategy was in getting its webOS devices to store shelves, it wasn't clear to anyone.
For a company that was dedicated to doubling down on webOS, it did a poor job executing the platform's success -- the way things turned out, it was destined to fail. And unfortunately HP decided to cut its losses before it could turn things around. We hope webOS can find a new home; if it gets the right amount of love and care, it can blossom into something great.
WebOS deserved better. Better hardware. Better management. Better marketing. Despite the slow pace of its current development, webOS remains one of the most advanced, polished and user-friendly mobile operating systems on the planet. In an age when budding smartphone platforms were just taking root, Palm remained in an exclusive dance with Sprint for too long and webOS has never recovered. By the time the Pre hit other carriers, the hardware seemed tired and uninspired. It was arguably the best software out there, but due to Palm's limited resources, it never had a chance. I wanted to believe HP would be the resurrection of the webOS platform, and that its engineering and marketing clout would usher in a renaissance era. I'd hoped HP's efforts wouldn't be "too little, too late," and that it would persist despite mounting odds. Instead, we got the TouchPad -- featuring the same brilliant software and the same lousy hardware. This was the device that webOS needed to gain legitimacy in the marketplace, and yet no amount of price cuts will fix sloppy engineering. It was the stake through the heart. Perhaps HP is doing the right thing. Perhaps it really is "too little, too late" in this rapidly consolidating mobile market. I'm just sorry that webOS had to be the victim.
HP's announcement to pull the plug on webOS, brings to mind one phrase: buyer's remorse. After shelling out $1.2 billion for Palm and subsequently inheriting webOS last year, the company is already regretting the choice, wishing it had opted for a more profitable gamble.
I have to hand it to HP for having a vision, though: a world where all HP hardware (tablets, PCs, printers, phones) features webOS, working together in harmony. Sadly, this dream was shattered after the launch of the Veer and the TouchPad, both of which failed to pick up commercially in competition with Apple and Google's mobile phones and tablets.
HP said it plans to keep the operating system on life support for at least a little while longer as it "explore[s] options to optimize the value of webOS." With no viable carrier partners chomping at the bit for the Pre 3, it's clear why HP has decided to ditch webOS.
I lament the loss of webOS as we've known it. I understand why HP is calling it quits with Palm, as the TouchPad is an almost unmitigated disaster, and no phone in the Pre family has been a world beater. There's also no indication that Palm can catch up to the competition from Apple or Big G, so HP is manning up and taking its 1.2 billion dollar loss on the chin. But, webOS is, and continues to be an intriguing alternative to iOS and Android, and quite simply, its potential was never realized due to lackluster hardware. My hope is that the platform isn't left to wither on the vine, and will either be licensed to a quality hardware manufacturer or open sourced to the masses. HP indicated a willingness to license the card-based OS before, and is saying that it will continue those efforts -- perhaps it can use the Moogle deal as means to get Samsung to ditch Bada in exchange for Palm's baby. A Galaxy S II running webOS is a pretty exciting prospect, no?
I'm going to assume that HP spent quite a few weeks peddling its webOS arm near and far before it came to this. Because, well, announcing that you're simply going to abandon ship doesn't exactly leave much leverage to sell, or even to line up licensees. There's no question that consumers -- and reviewers alike -- didn't embrace the TouchPad with open arms and open wallets, but is scaling back staff and leaving existing customers standing high and dry really the best approach? And what's the deal with that über lame Pre 3 "launch" yesterday? Who launches a phone the day before news like this? If a deal didn't fall through at the 11th hour, HP has some 'splainin' to do.
And to think there was a time I wanted the HP TouchPad. It's been clear for a while now that things weren't sunny in webOS land, but I didn't expect lightning to strike so suddenly. I yearned for that tablet for months, but when I actually got ahold of one a few weeks ago, my sentiments were reversed. It wasn't that the OS felt bad, but more that the hardware itself just felt cheap and not well thought out. With the recent FCC filings for the slate's Go variant it seemed that there was still a chance for the underdog, but alas, my dreams of a worthy webOS slate have been cut short.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about today's news is how disappointed I'm not feeling that HP is abandoning webOS hardware. As a former Palm Pre owner (and before that, a Handspring Visor once upon a time) I loved webOS's functionality, but can't point to any element of its product strategy before or after the acquisition that did much to serve customers' (or, more importantly, app developers') needs. Bringing a portrait sliding QWERTY keyboard when other manufacturers ignored it was nice, but with squished together keys and an often-wonky hinge the execution could have been better. webOS was well suited to a tablet form factor, but delivering another me-too 10-incher in the TouchPad made it impossible to break free from the pack. The Pre 3 was similarly uninspiring and while the Veer features a unique form factor for a smartphone, try finding anyone who actually knows about it.
Rather than shed tears over flawed launches and the stillborn webOS printers we never asked for, I'm wondering if there still is a company out there willing to pick up the banner and continue to fight on where Palm and HP failed. The case for Google to license its patents and whatever underlying technology or expertise can be sucked out of the dying corpse is an obvious one; although if there's a hope to see webOS continue as a platform it's probably from a manufacturer currently hitching its wagon to someone else's horse. HTC and Samsung are the logical choices, and rumors have already indicated the latter is aggressively looking to strengthen its position by acquiring new technology -- making this a good fit for it to roll out across an entire army of connected devices. The same applies for their competitors like Sony and LG, but I have my eye on one other potential candidate: Vizio.
The cheap TV manufacturer makes a lot more than TVs these days, and despite releasing one heavily skinned tablet, it's not too deeply invested in Android to switch. In webOS it could find just the mature platform needed to offer apps and web apps across its line of products for a song, keeping prices low and potential licensing issues at bay. How quickly HP can pivot from manufacturer to licensor may be the key in all of this, if the glacial pace of webOS development continues, it will be irrelevant long before anyone else can take advantage. Maybe it's just wishful thinking at work, but racing to the bottom and becoming the bargain brand OS of choice could be a sweet redemption story for a platform that is just too well put together (the contact synchronization is so money) to die so soon. Please, pardon me while I HotSync just once more, for old time's sake.
HP may not have completely killed webOS today, but its future doesn't look bright. The best that the business once known as Palm can hope for now is to either see the OS sold off completely or see it licensed to one or more third-party manufacturers. But who is left at the table? Nokia and Motorola are out of the picture, and it seems unlikely that HTC, LG or Samsung would abandon either Android or Windows Phone (or both) to take on an even bigger risk with webOS -- and it's even less likely that they'd take on a third OS. And as for RIM, having one less platform to contend with can only be seen as an opportunity to eek out a bit more market share, not an opportunity to blow some cash.
Of course, there's always the possibility of a wild card like Amazon or a smaller manufacturer swooping in and doing something interesting (although we're getting into increasingly desperate territory here), and then there's Google and Microsoft, who may find themselves willing to pick up the pieces (and the patents) for the right price. Ultimately though, it feels like this is finally an instance where the death of Palm has not been greatly exaggerated, and that's more than a little sad considering all the company accomplished against some considerable odds.
To be honest, I'm not surprised by today's announcement -- the writing's been on the wall for a while now. Back in 2009, I watched with excitement (and filmed) webOS being demoed at CTIA and lined up to buy a Pre that summer. Yes, webOS was (and still is) fabulous, but it's always been plagued by Palm's lackluster hardware and questionable relationships. Choosing Sprint as launch partner was a terrible mistake at a time when AT&T was married to Apple, T-Mobile was holding the torch for Google, and Verizon was available -- remember the pre-Droid days? I attended Palm's first webOS developer day and for a brief moment there, it looked as if the fledgling OS had a better chance than Android. But sadly, the Pre was substandard in terms of materials and build quality, not to mention uncompetitive in terms of specs. The Pixi was interesting, but made too many sacrifices in trying to take webOS downmarket. What Palm needed was a superphone like the Nexus One, but by this point it was struggling to stay afloat.
Enter HP. I knew webOS was doomed the day Palm was acquired. Other than its awesome pocket calculators (RPN forever!) and its well-established server and printer business, has HP done anything in the past few years that even remotely stands out? The last HP product that I remember lusting after was the Voodoo Envy 133, and that was acquired (and also destroyed) -- all I see now is wave after wave of crappy laptops and desktops washing up on the shores of Best Buy. Nevertheless, it was with a glimmer of hope that I attended HP's "Think Beyond" event earlier this year, and while I was excited to see 3 new webOS devices being announced, I was immediately concerned that (like the Pre 2 before them) the Veer, Pre 3 and TouchPad were just too little, too late. Sure, webOS looked as delicious as ever, but the hardware still felt cheap and behind the curve -- and this months before even being launched. Fast forward to now: the Veer and TouchPad are a bust, and the Pre 3 barely available.
The Veer is cute, but it's a dwarf in a world of giants (and I don't mean just physically). I knew the TouchPad was in trouble the moment I played with it in February, and the iPad 2 sealed its fate. As for the Pre 3, it's not the webOS superphone I was longing for. Unfortunately, I don't think webOS is long for this world -- unless HP can license it or spin it off, it's just going to be destroyed like Voodoo. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to dust off my Pre now, and use it for the rest of the week...