Technology analysis of the latest gadgets, consoles, and computer architectures.

Monday, August 22, 2011

WebOS: The Platform That Still Can

It was only two months ago when I placed my pre-order for the HP TouchPad. A part of me wanted to wait until I had a chance to demo the TouchPad in a brick-and-mortar, but the opportunity to have the TouchPad in my hands before my trip to Minneapolis the weekend of the 4th was too much for me to resist. Today I find myself $450 richer, as HP's instructions to credit early buyers finally made its way to Note that I had the option to return the TouchPad and receive a full refund days before, but I waited patiently and the credit came through. It has simultaneously been a very confusing 4 days since HP's announcement to stop producing WebOS hardware. At first came denial; disbelief that HP would spend $1.2 billion dollars on Palm just one year ago, throw another half to one billion on running the business and designing a product as impressive as the TouchPad in less than one year while a merger was underway and the CEO was replaced. Then came anger; after having lived with a Sprint Pre for over two years, I had become hopeful that the Pre 3 would arrive to take its place, and now suddenly the Pre 3 is no where to be found and I am left with a less-than-optimal Franken Pre Plus. This $450 I find myself with was invested in future of WebOS; I would gladly bargain this cash for a Sprint Pre 3 and updates to the TouchPad and Pre for the next two years. Alas, I am not left with this option, leaving me to grudgingly accept a Franken Pre 2 at some point in the future once I feel compelled to buy one on ebay.

I would love to dedicate this blog posting to how much I love WebOS 3.0 running on the TouchPad. In fact, the promised OTA update that arrived July 31 greatly improved reliability with loading flash content like Hulu, Amazon Video, and Comedy Central, making this device the only computer I need when I travel. As I sit here blogging on the TouchPad, is playing my mix radio station in the background (you have no idea how long I've waited for on WebOS), and the "Kübler-Ross model" Wikipedia page is in the same stack as this window.

At first glance, HP's announcement to exit the WebOS hardware business and possibly spin or sell off the entire Personal Systems division seemed like an incredibly crippling move. HP's shares declined over 30% the day after this announcement was made, losing more value than the amount required to purchase of Autonomy Corp, announced prior to the earnings report. It certainly was a PR nightmare for HP, one that introduced grave uncertainties to those employed by the Personal Systems Group and the former Palm group as well as the users and developers of WebOS. As someone who has personally experienced unknowns like this at a former employer, I understand how it feels to find out about a major development via a press release rather than having been informed internally prior to a public announcement; it is incredibly depressing. Especially given all the hard work the team has demonstrated this past year, it is disappointing that less than 2 months after the TouchPad was launched, and mid-way through another hardware development cycle, Palm was stopped in its tracks once again. Perhaps it was the ghost of the Palm Folio that stopped everything, or maybe it was the limited resources and shifts in focus away from phones and towards the TouchPad. It certainly didn't help that the two year anniversary of the launch of the original Palm Pre for Sprint was followed by no new WebOS phone for said users; although some of us continued to have patience and bought TouchPads at full retail price to help bide the time, ultimately the base that made up the WebOS movement in 2009 did not return in 2011.

The HP TouchPad was a great tablet and WebOS 3.0 was gaining traction in mindshare, but consumers were afraid to make the investment; iOS and Android were a safer bet, even though the platforms were not nearly as well developed as WebOS 3.0. In fact, I would have to say the HP TouchPad was the best WebOS launch HP and Palm could have executed. The device and software was well-received despite the hardware being compared to the first iPad and the software waiting for its OTA (in development for several months) to patch outstanding bugs. The advertisements for the Veer and TouchPad were actually quite good, and once the demos finally arrived at the multitude of retailers that HP reached out to for the launch, the TouchPad was front and center and ready to be touched by millions of consumers. The fan support, however, was lost; many of the sales employees had already moved on either to Android or iOS and it was safer to sell what they knew rather than what could be (and what they had likely found in the past to be insufficient).

Finally, Palm has been working very hard to court developers from the very first launch of WebOS, but they truly redoubled their efforts since the Think Beyond event in February, making the SDK for WebOS 3.0 available very early, making the Pre 2 affordable for developers to purchase and test with, and providing access to the Veer and TouchPad in many developer events throughout the nation months prior to launch. From my perspective, quality applications available for the TouchPad at launch easily surpassed HoneyComb at launch (and perhaps even to date), and were as significant (if not more) than the original application partners of the Sprint Pre. Epicurious, Kindle, Time magazine, and HD versions of Angry Birds were waiting for me when I first logged into my Palm Profile, along with all the applications I had downloaded (free and purchased) on my Pre. Only a couple weeks later and we started seeing impressive WebOS-native applications like Glimpse, Mosaic, and Video Flood HD. Additionally, Skype was built-in with video support and ready for use at launch, and WebOS 3.0 was even able to connect to my Pre (running meta 2.0) and place calls. The only thing that would have made this launch perfect would have been the availability of the Pre 3 on Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T on the same day...but we will never know what that would have been like.

Then came the firesale...TouchPad dropped from $499 to $399 less than two weeks ago (with a special $299 price at Staples) and finally down to the clearance prices of $99.99 for the 16GB and $149.99 for the 32GB starting Saturday morning. The tablets started flying off shelves and taking down customer service lines and major retailer websites, and this continues to this minute. Despite no guarantees for updates to the tablet after the first year warranty is up, and irregardless of platform (iOS and Android), the tablet consumer found this too good of a deal to pass up. The hardware is certainly up to par (1.2GHz, overclockable to 1.5GHz, with 1GB of RAM and good battery life), and WebOS, despite not having the iOS and Android apps and devices behind it, is certainly able to hold its own, and the consumer recognizes that. The risk isn't so high at $99 or $150, and suddenly HPalm was finally able to accomplish what they've been aiming for since WebOS was first introduced to the public; adoption near the scale of an Apple device.

"The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success." Originally a Bruce Feirstein quote, it was also done well by our good friend Jonathan Pryce in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies. Léo Apotheker, the current CEO of HP with a name that sounds like a Bond villain, surprisingly tends to fall in line well with this quote, and only time will tell how successful this move was. One interesting factoid is that Mr. Apotheker won the French Légion honour in 2007 "in recognition of his business leadership and contribution to the French economy". By taking a huge loss and discounting the HP TouchPad below cost, HP has strangely invested in WebOS's future in a way that 3+ years of development and 2+ years of hardware has not. As unfortunate as this move will be for many outstanding engineers working at HPalm, Mr. Apotheker has taken potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in WebOS's future, reminiscent of a socialist redistributing the wealth with the net result of a greater populace capable of discretionary spending to stimulate the economy. In other words, WebOS just gained over a million users and greater interest in the platform than all of the efforts taken previously by engineers and marketing to capture the attention of the tech addicted masses. It is sad to see this money taken away from engineering (seeing that Palm was likely a $500 million dollar business prior to being acquired), but this may have been the smartest way to invest this money on WebOS. Developer sales have increased 4-fold, and PC Mag headlined "The 10 Best Things to Do With Your New $99 HP TouchPad", a feature that's typically focused on more WebOS specific blogs like precentral and webosroundup.

Ultimately, the most interesting result of this madness seems to have solved the dilemma of which comes first, the users or the developers. A platform needs apps to garner user attention, and WebOS, launched on lackluster hardware and deployed in a limited fashion for the past two years, lost user interest, which lost developer interest, and continued to spiral downwards until HP decided it was time to make it rain tablets. And now WebOS has earned the reawakening it was seeking on the's up to HP now to keep the momentum going once again.

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