In Memoriam: The life and death of webOS

HP is killing off its webOS devices and it looks like the end of the line for the platform. Let’s take a look back at how it came to be and why we’re now looking at the end of the line.

Palm was in the smartphone game before it was cool with its Treo lineup but it couldn’t keep up with the times after the first iPhone came out. That all changed at CES 2009 where Palm’s CEO Jon Rubinstein publicly unveiled the Palm Pre and the webOS software.

Many pundits instantly said, “Palm is back.” because webOS looked like a stunningly beautiful new way to interact with mobile device. The “cards” user interface for apps were simple, smooth and quite refreshing. The Synergy system was a nice way to bring all of your disperate online communities into a single place, the notification system was smart and intuitive and the web-centric approach to apps seemed like a great way to foster an application ecosystem.

The life and death of webOSThe Palm Pre looked intriguing too, as the smooth design and slide-out keyboard were stark contrasts to the iPhone and the specs were nothing to sneeze at. Although having Sprint as the exclusive launch partner didn’t seem like the best move, there was a ton of excitement about the company and webOS. Palm was back, indeed.

The buzz continued for a few months but then that buzz kind of turned into frustration waiting for the device. The Palm Pre was released June 6, 2009 and this was a full six months after it first captured the imagination of the tech press and gadget lovers. Sure, the original iPhone had a similar announcement and release window but Palm didn’t have the clout to pull that off. It also didn’t help that the iPhone 3GS was announced a few days later with better specs and an ever-growing application porfolio.

Despite some questionable hardware, the Palm Pre was a really nice device that did give the iPhone a run for its money in terms of usability and appeal but the application ecosystem never really developed. This was kind of odd considering that the webOS platform was supposed to be really easy to develop for.

The life and death of webOSThe partnership with Sprint was kind of seen as a marriage of convenience: Sprint needed a flagship device to compete against the iPhone and Palm needed the cash that the carrier ponied up to build up its webOS strategy. The Pre did sell decently but Sprint doesn’t have the blockbuster reach that AT&T and Verizon do, so the carrier’s CFO eventually said the Pre failed.

This was also at the beginning of the smartphone revolution with the masses, as the iPhone continued to draw lines and sell millions during its release date and the BlackBerry became the device of choice for business people. Android was starting to pick up steam too, as the negotiations were already taking place between Verizon and Google for the mega-hit Droid lineup.

Rubinstein later said that the Palm Pre could have been as big as the Droid if it had partnered with Verizon but that’s a bit of revisionist history – there’s no telling if Palm could have even survived as long as it did without the cash infusion from Sprint for the exclusivity. Verizon may have also been dead set on Android because it offered a way for the carrier to offer multiple, high-quality iPhone competitors from different vendors. The original Droid was made by Motorola, but followup Droid phones have been made by HTC and others.

The life and death of webOSWhile the Palm Pre wasn’t a mega-hit, it was a solid first device and really whetted the appetite of webOS fans. Palm followed this up with the Pixi in November of 2009 and this had less power than the Pre but focused more on design and sex appeal. Palm’s Centro smartphone had been a moderate hit and it was trying to capture the market which viewed smartphones as part-time computer and part-time fashion accessory. The Pixi was very cute but failed to really gain any momentum.

The Pre finally came to other networks with the Pre Plus but the bloom was definitely off the rose with Palm and webOS at this point. Many still loved webOS and its user interaction metaphors but wanted some better hardware to use it on – perhaps a large, touch-only slate with webOS would have been a better choice than the Pixi. Despite this, there was still much fondness for webOS among the tech community.

Palm continued to advance the platform but it didn’t quite keep pace with the competition. The ambitious web development focus didn’t resonate with developers (the small audience size also didn’t help) and it introduced a plug-in development kit for stronger native apps that include 3D gaming. Developers stil weren’t biting.

During this time, Palm’s stock was circling the drain and the company just didn’t have the resources to compete against the likes of Apple, Microsoft, Google and Samsung. Rumors were swirling that the company would be acquired and HP finally swooped in with a $1.2 billion acquisition in April 2010 with talks that it would “double down” on webOS.

This seemed like a match made in heaven, as HP had the resources to finally unleash webOS at scale. The company said that the webOS platform was the main reason it purchased the company (it also got a lot of patents) and it planned to throw this on everything: smartphones, tablets, computers, printers, cars and more. HP finally had purchased its way into potentially being a strong player in the ever-important mobile space. With the backing of the world’s largest technology company, webOS had run out of excuses. It was now time for this platform to shine.

It didn’t, though.

Big mergers and acquisitions are always fraught with pitfalls and the potential for a disastrous ending but that wasn’t really evident with the HPalm amalgamation. The Pre 2 and webOS 2.0 was quietly announced in October of last year but it just seemed like a remnant of Palm’s old roadmap. While the card stacks in webOS 2.0 were neat and the extra Synergy options were nice, it still wasn’t keeping pace with iOS, Android or the brand-new Windows Phone.

The life and death of webOS Once HP gets its money and engineers behind webOS, we’ll finally see some amazing hardware to augment the pretty platform. When HP announced a webOS event in February of 2011, our expectations were sky high. Finally, we were going to see HP’s true vision for webOS.

Rubinstein, now a VP at HP, was on stage with all the swagger he had at CES 2009 as he introduced the Veer, Pre 3 and the webOS-powered TouchPad. While the Palm name was dead, webOS lived on. I wasn’t blown away by any of these products but these did show that HP was serious about the mobile market. WebOS had hope.

The HP Veer landed first and it actually packed a lot of power in a comically-small form factor. Of the few Veer users that I know, most of them really love the thing. The HP TouchPad landed in June to much fanfare but we felt the software wasn’t ready for prime time and the hardware wasn’t as sleek as the competition like the iPad 2, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 or even the Asus Transformer.

HP did throw a lot of money promoting these devices, as there are multiple ads which feature high-profile celebrities, but neither device really caught on. The TouchPad has been an indisputable flop, as retail outlets like Best Buy reportedly are sitting on tens of thousands of unsold units.

While things didn’t look great, many thought HP would barrel through with webOS tablets and devices. The Pre 3 was still highly anticipated and could be a moderate hit. With more software iterations and better hardware, I thought webOS could be a decent player in the mobile game.

The life and death of webOSHP’s announcement that it would discontinue webOS products was kind of a shock because you wouldn’t think that it would spend $1.2 billion and not give it a fair shake. For HP, the dollars and cents just didn’t add up – on its conference call for its quarterly earnings, HP said that webOS would require “significant investments over the next five years, generating risk without clear rewards.”

It’s important to note that during the time HP was integrating Palm, CEO Mark Hurd resigned under dubious circumstances and Leo Apotheker came over from SAP to lead the company. Apotherker’s vision for the company appears to be different than Hurd’s, as its unclear if this strong enterprise focus for HP would have occurred if Hurd was at the helm.

While webOS products from HP are dead but the platform may get a third chance at life. HP has openly talked about licensing webOS and this would give a handset maker a chance to have a fully-baked operating system of its own. That may be a long shot, though, as it would still require “significant investments” that licensees may not want to undertake.

WebOS exploded on the scene with a lot of hope and promise but it also fizzled out quickly thanks to bad decisions, timing, mediocre hardware, lack of developer and carrier interest and increased competition. It never evolved as much as it needed to to stay relevant and it never graced great hardware. Still, I feel a tinge of sadness with what looks like the death of webOS because it did have amazing potential.

I still believe that webOS is the best 1.0 smartphone OS that I’ve ever used: the user interaction metaphors, notification system and overall polish were fresh and really help push the industry forward. We all know that RIM’s QNX operating system on the PlayBook wouldn’t be what it is without webOS.

The story of webOS right now is one of a company and platform with strong potential but extremely poor execution and strategy. The vision and ideas behind webOS were first class but the Pre, Pixi, Pre 2, Veer and TouchPad aren’t even close to being called great and the lack of a competent app ecosystem also shows how important it is to deliver the entire package to users.

WebOS is just the latest to fall by the wayside in the rapidly-evolving mobile world, as we’ve seen Symbian reach the end of its life and Motorola will soon be part of Google, which wasn’t even considered a mobile company five years ago.

It’s a wild world, friends.

  • When I saw the title “life and death of webOS” I couldn’t help but assume the article wasn’t going to be longer than 300 words or so…

  • Anonymous

    Hell no. WebOS isn’t dead. It’s the beginning of its success. It will most likely be licensed to other manufacturers, as everyone is saying. Image webos on a samsung galaxy s ii. That’s gonna be so cool!

    • Kajun58

      I really HOPE you are RIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Anonymous

      I like webOS too but it’s going to cost a lot to maintain, develop and evolve webOS and I’m not sure that other companies are that eager to do this, especially considering that webOS has never been on a blockbuster device

  • kajun58

    The problem was never the Device, the Software or even the wonderfully WebOS, the problem was the marketing or should I say that LACK there of of a marketing plan!

    HP is a bunch of bean counter with no VISION … They had no real direction for the hardware or the OS. They thought just the “HP” name was all they needed! They thought that could sell mobile devices they way they sell printers! Well, they’re not printers! And this is 2011 not 1995.

    I own TWO HP printers and one HP laptop but, this is where I part with HP. I’ll not buy another HP product. They took a wonderful product and killed. I had Palm devices when they called them Palm Pilots …I had the Treo smart phones.  Palm had vision, they were not copiers they were innovators. HP should have let someone like Google purchase … A company with vision, someone not afraid to think outside the box! That’s what it take to innovate … you can’t say that just because it’s never been done before, it can’t be done! With this thinking there would never have been a Palm Pilot, Treo or even a Palm Pre.

    I’m not an iPhone fan but, I give Apple this, they know how to innovate ,,, and that greatest gift in my opinion is this: THEY KNOW HOW TO MARKET!!!

    So long Palm Pre … and WebOS  … It will also be PALM in my mind …
    Now, I need to FIND A NEW CELL PHONE …  Got any idea … OH … I needs be able to configure multiple email accounts .. it needs to have SYNERGY … I don’t want to and my contact twice (on my pc and then again on my phone) …  Well perhaps I’m asking for too much!

    • Anonymous

      I thought the marketing plan wasn’t actually that bad – the celebrity stuff wasn’t amazing but they definitely put money in it. You’re right though, as there was no vision because this acquisition was Hurd’s baby and Leo didn’t care about it. 

  • Come on webos suck

  • Doggerel

    If the screen had been bigger I’d have bought one.  Still use my Treo.

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