Where HP and Palm went wrong with webOS

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| August 19, 2011

I look back at webOS – what it could have been and how both HP and Palm had no clue as to what they should do with the little gold nugget in their hands – and I'm sad. No, I'm hollow.

How did they let this happen? I can understand one company linking a trail of mistakes together, enough missteps to drive the company and their powerful, enigmatic software down to rock bottom. But they were swept up by HP, who, despite having no experience in the mobile market, promised great things to come from webOS. Just over a year later, they, too, are throwing in the towel.

Seriously, HP?

I can remember back to the day I woke up to headlines of one of the most widely-known computer manufacturers purchasing Palm. Instead of instantly discarding the PC (and printer) company, I decided I would give them the benefit of a doubt. Over they past year, HP has provided wanting consumers with details of an elegant and seamless webOS ecosystem – traversing between handsets, tablets, printers and even their own computers. It would have been the complete package on arguably the most beautiful mobile platform with enormous potential. They had it all going for them. Palm was (somewhat) salvaged and under the impression that the fruits of their labor may finally get the attention it deserves. But we're here in 2011 and the fate of webOS is all but sealed. So where did they (both Palm and HP) go wrong?

The problem was never software. Most of those who actually gave it a chance will agree. In fact, webOS is beautiful and intuitive. Palm implemented the perfect balance of buttons, gestures and multitasking. Even though it never really had strong application support, comparatively, the software was solid and elegant. Perfect for the multitasking businessman and mod-loving tinkerer.

If you ask anyone with general knowledge of webOS, Palm or HP's mobile endeavors, they will quickly list hardware as the Achilles' heel of the platform. Neither Palm or HP knew differentiation. HP entered a market at the worst time for a company with little to no mobile and software knowledge to possibly enter. Android is growing at breakneck pace, and can be purchased in a plethora of hardware choices. Even Windows Phone 7 can be found in a few different form factors by a handful of varying OEMs. But if you wanted a webOS device at any point over the past two years, you had two main form factors to choose between. You could get front-facing QWERTY wafer style device with the Pixi, but it was clearly geared toward people with tiny hands. The other form factor is a vertical-sliding QWERTY, which can be found on all of the Pre devices and the too small Veer. All of these devices are fitted with tiny displays, tiny keyboards and are composed primarily of cheap plastic. Not one webOS device has made it to shelves sporting decent hardware or any variation.

If Palm or HP had experimented with form factor variation at all, I probably wouldn't be writing this right now. Android has variation, but many consumers are growing wary of all of the bugs and agonizingly slow updates. A webOS phone with a 4-inch display, no physical keyboard and half-decent specs, would have garnered enough appeal to appease closet webOS lovers and converts alike.

That said, hardware was hardly the only problem with webOS. Time, marketing and a poor business plan all played their role in the perpetual webOS failures. Not to mention, HP seriously underestimated the viscious and fast-paced mobile market in every way possible.

Take HP's announcement of the 2011 webOS devices for example. The Pre 3, Veer and TouchPad were all announced at the beginning of February. The Veer made it to market first in May, which wasn't so bad. But it was the least interesting and anticipated of any webOS device … ever. Next was the TouchPad on July 1st. HP's webOS tablet was met with mixed reviews due to buggy software and, of course, mediocre hardware. Lastly is the Pre 3. It silently launched this week in the UK, though no operators there care to stock it. My point? Don't announce your devices for the year and launch them six months later. By the time they arrive, the mystique is entirely gone, whereas rumors and leaks through those six months could completely change the market's outlook on the device.

Palm nor HP fully had a grasp on marketing either. Palm, the worse of the two, had launched an eerie ad campaign that ultimately blew up in their faces. That creepy woman still gives me nightmares. And HP was only slightly better in their marketing endeavors. Unlike Windows Phone 7 ads, Apple's “If you don't have an iPhone, you don't have an iPhone” ads and the DROID marketing campaign, all of which appropriately pitted their products against the competition, webOS ads were just kind of there, lurking in the background. Creeping people out.

Derek Kessler of Pre Central, an avid proponent of the webOS platform, notes through a lengthy and rather emotional letter to HP that the company has “neither balls nor brains.” (Seriously, go read it.) Bold? Yes. But is he right? For the most part. Kessler describes how HP had such grandiose plans for webOS and after a little backlash from uninterested consumers and UK wireless operators, they pull out of the mobile hardware race. They purchased Palm in April of 2010 for $1.2 billion and now they're throwing it away because they could not effectively change anything. Their business plan was essentially unchanged from the one that failed Palm. Take the Pre 3 and original Pre as a prime example. Aside from different internals and display size, the two phones were one in the same and two years apart.

I – an avid lover of Android, BlackBerry and iOS – also have a spot in my heart for webOS and have longed for it to finally gain some traction and come to the limelight. But two, collaborative companies could not make it work for a multitude of reasons. Reasons that could have easily been avoided by a company with real goals and real aspirations in the mobile market. Purchasing a company and IP for $1.2 billion only to throw it away a year later because they faced a bit of adversity shows HP's poor planning and lack of ambition.

All of this does not mean webOS is ultimately doomed. There is still room for a turnaround, albeit unusually small. HP announced plans to license webOS to OEMs. Regardless, I'm not holding my breath. Considering the reputation webOS has acquired in 2011 and the fact that manufacturers can adopt Android for free and Windows Phone 7 for a reasonable price, there is little working in the web-based platform's favor at the moment.

I hate to jump the gun and throw in the towel on webOS, but if the owners of the software are, why shouldn't we? It had potential until even the owners showed a lack of confidence in their own product. Ignorance isn't always bliss, you know ...

Image via SlashGear