Ten months ago Palm shocked the technology world by unveiling WebOS and Pre at a press conference during CES. Let's hope they've got something just as exciting lined up to knock our collective socks off next month in Vegas. WebOS is the best mobile operating system going right now, but I fear that Palm may have lost their chance to regain a lion's share of the smartphone market by way of some questionable business decisions regarding the launch of the first two WebOS devices.
Why is WebOS the best? Palm's platform is the only mobile operating system on the market to combine modern smartphone features like multitasking and core integration of networked services with a truly appealing user interface. Android's too geeky and unpolished, iPhone OS lacks "true" smartphone functionality, and BlackBerry 5, Symbian S60 and Windows Mobile 6.5 are looking pretty long in the tooth at this point. Maemo 5, the new Linux-based OS featured on Nokia's N900, is an interesting contender, but still far too raw and un-consumer-friendly to really be considered.
But WebOS has it all: Robust multitasking, seamless integration of notifications, social networking, and cloud-based services, and a user interface that's as functional it is fun to use. When I use an iPhone I want it to have an Android-like notifications drawer. When I use Android I want it to have iPhone-like icons and transitions that are easy on my eyes. But when I use a Pre or Pixi, I think, man this the closest thing out there to "how it should be." I don't mind WebOS' lack of widgets, but I guess I could do with some Home screen shortcuts in addition to that nifty launcher bar.
The thing is, I don't carry a WebOS device as my daily phone and wouldn't consider it any time soon. And too many others consumers are thinking that way, too. Why not?
Palm needs to take the lessons it learned from the Pre and Pixi design processes and apply them to a second-generation flagship device. Pixi with a larger display and hardcore guts? Pre with a refined keyboard? Something entirely different? Whatever it is, WebOS is deserving of an elite piece of hardware that can bang with the big boys. Palm did it right with the multitouch capacitive displays and embedded flash memory on Pre and Pixi; now it's time to step up the materials and ergonomics to HTC/Nokia/iPhone standards.
Maybe Palm's taking a page from Google's playbook with their WebOS strategy. At this point I'm pretty convinced that Google knew exactly what they were doing in going with the nation's smallest Big Carrier for the first year (give or take) of Android's life. T-Mobile got a boost from an exclusive on "The Google Phone." Google got the chance to sell what amounted to Beta hardware and software in the G1 handset running Android OS 1.x - and they got to do it without the consumer and shareholder scrutiny that would have come had they immediately jumped into bed with Verizon to take on AT&T's iPhone. Android 1.x was not a fully polished consumer product, and everyone who bought a G1 was (or should have been) cool with that. G1 owners got to enjoy the benefits of being early adopters without the early adopter tax, thanks to T-Mo's industry-best smartphone rate plan pricing.
So perhaps that's what Palm's been up to in keeping WebOS 1.x devices on Sprint. Sprint's a solid carrier with excellent pricing, but they lack the subscriber volume and consumer mindshare of the US' top two carriers. An exclusive with Sprint let Palm get WebOS out into the hands of consumers and influencers, and let Palm work out some kinks, court developers and get a few hardware designs into the marketplace without the sink-or-swim pressure of sitting next to iPhone in an AT&T store.
Thing is, Palm doesn't have the luxury of Google's bank account, Internet search/advertising business, and stratospheric stock prices to keep them afloat while they get from WebOS v.1 to WebOS v.2. Also, while Google built Android OS and then leveraged their ubiquitous Net services to get hardware partners and carriers to line up to work myriad "Google Experience" phones, Palm's doing all of the heavy lifting themselves. Software development, hardware production, marketing: It's all on Palm's dime and Palm's shoulders (save a Sprint marketing campaign to compliment Palm's own).
Whether CEO Jon Rubenstein has a secret plan to get his company bought up by an aging giant like Nokia or he's got a long-term plan ready to enter stage two (AT&T and Verizon are both likely to get WebOS phones in 2010), I hope the future turns out to be bright for Palm and WebOS. WebOS is the best example of a consumer-friendly, geek-approved mobile OS in the market today. It just needs more of everything to really have a shot at greatness: More apps, more customization options, more (and more robust) hardware, and more network subscribers with a Palm handset amongst their carrier subsidized options.