HP and The Demise of WebOS

There is an interesting editorial on Engadget about the demise of WebOS, but there are a couple of points and themes they make that I want to address (and that would make way too big a comment on the article 🙂 ). The first is the idea that consumers cared deeply about Palm and WebOS. That, somehow, Palm held a special place in the hearts of consumers, and that HP took that relationship and trashed it. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. I liked Palm. I’ve owned several Palm devices over the years, my first being a Palm Pilot Pro, and the last being a Treo running PalmOS, which was the first smartphone I purchased for myself. But if consumers cared so deeply about the company, why didn’t they buy any actual product from them? Palm’s descent began, from what I can see, when the 3rd generation Treos hit the market, and you could choose between PalmOS or Windows Mobile. This happened at a time when Windows Mobile was on the rise, PalmOS was starting to look and be very dated, and Blackberry had yet to establish their presence in the smartphone space, still being basically a really fancy pager. PalmOS was dying, following the trajectory of the PDA market as it started to slide when people decided they wanted their PDA to include a phone. Sales continued to drop, and finally bringing out WebOS on the first Pre and Pixi phones did nothing to halt the slide. By the time WebOS finally came out, Windows Mobile has lost the crown, Blackberry was king of the smartphones in North America (and was starting to make an impact globally),  iPhone was out and stunning the world and the first Androids were getting customer’s attention. Consumers didn’t care about Palm. If they did, they would have actually been buying their products.

Second, the idea that HP is the “bad guy” in this scenario. Again, I’m not buying that. WebOS was, sadly, dead on arrival. By the time HP bought it, the hope was that maybe, just maybe, their deeper pockets could bring some life to the dying platform. HP was unable to do that. It didn’t help that the next round of WebOS devices weren’t exactly stunning, hardware-wise, but people don’t buy technical specs. They buy things they want to use, and WebOS wasn’t on the checklist. WebOS was removed from people’s awareness back when Palm was still on their own. HP certainly didn’t help, and they didn’t put the effort in one might have hoped for. But the arrival of the iPhone put the first nails into the WebOS coffin before WebOS even saw the light of day. Android simply ensured the coffin would stay closed. Pretty much all of this happened prior to HP buying Palm. HP may share some of the blame, by not putting in a better effort, but they are not the sole architect of WebOS’s demise.

Last, the “hope” that WebOS might live on by being licensed by a 3rd-party, or possibly as an open source platform. Let’s explore those, starting with 3rd-party devices. Unless HP has already started working with someone (like HTC or Samsung, as examples), any 3rd-party device is at least 1 year, possibly 2, away from hitting store shelves. In that time, there will be numerous Android phones, probably a Google-designed, Google-built phone and at least 1, possibly 2, iterations of the iPhone. How many customers are going to even consider an operating system they barely acknowledged 1-2 years prior? Wandering the wilderness is not the way to build a strong brand, or attract developers to your ecosystem.

But what about WebOS as an open source platform? It worked for Android, didn’t it? Well, sort-of. Android is open source, but it also has the Open Handset Alliance behind it. WebOS, as an open source platform, would be an interesting hobbyist system, and it might attract the attention of 3rd-parties. But again, any commercial devices will be 1-2 years away. Making it open source doesn’t change that reality. And consumers won’t, for the most part, be interested in buying a handset to install a port from the Internet. The number of jailbroken iPhones and rooted Androids is a testament to that: people aren’t interested in “doing things” to their phones that they think might be dodgy. Most want to buy the thing and use it, as-is.

WebOS was too late to the market, much like Windows Phone is today, and was forced to play catch-up. By the time WebOS arrived, the iPhone was already on its second generation, with the 3G, and the 3GS was around the corner. The first Android phones had already been on the market, and were gaining traction. HP has simply acknowledged that WebOS really didn’t stand a chance. The most recent Pre devices have hardly sold at all. The Touchpad is still sitting on shelves (although most are probably going to be on trucks and back in HP’s hands over the next few days). Neither could compete with the iOS or Android juggernauts, and Google getting into hardware wasn’t going to make it easier. Sure, WebOS may still find new life, but it’s only and best hope is in embedded devices like vehicle infotainment systems. In its current form, it isn’t a competitive platform anymore. Now, to try to buy one before they disappear, so that I can own a piece of technology history.