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WebOS: What Went Wrong?

HP decided to discontinue WebOS tablets and phones, perhaps the last blow to a once-promising mobile operating system.

HP announced Thursday that it will discontinue its WebOS line of devices, which includes the HP Veer 4G, the HP Touchpad and the yet-to-be-released HP Pre 3 smartphone. The death of WebOS devices is sad, yet unsurprising news. The entire journey of the WebOS has been marred by pitfalls since the very beginning--and things only got worse over time.

WebOS's Troubled Start

WebOS has a special place in my heart and I've always wanted it to do well. The Palm Pilot was my first foray into the smartphone/PDA world so when I heard rumors in late 2008 that Palm was going to revive its platform, I was excited to see what ferating system would look like. Palm OS, which was found on some of the earliest PDAs and Smartphones, like my Pilot, the Treo and the Centro, did not have the features or aesthetics to compete with the iPhone, RIM's BlackBerry OS and even Windows Mobile.

Fast-forward to the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show: Palm staged a huge media event and unveiled the brand new WebOS operating system and a new phone to go with it, the Palm Pre. Palm seemed ready to take on the iPhone with Jon Rubenstein at the helm, the ex-Apple engineer who helped create the iPod. WebOS seemed to have it all: a gorgeous user interface, touch-friendly navigation, multitasking support, an apps ecosystem, unique messaging features and even iTunes support. At the time, there was pretty much no smartphone phone that could match the iPhone when it came to apps, multimedia and user-friendly design. Android was hardly a threat with only one US phone available, the G1, which was clunky. The Palm Pre looked slick, too. With its full touch display and slide-out QWERTY keyboard, it hit that sweet spot between the iPhone and the BlackBerry. The term "iPhone killer" was certainly thrown around a lot at its launch.

But there were signs of trouble right out of the gate, starting as early as the day after the splashy launch. First off, Palm did not allow the media to touch or use the Pre. We could watch the Palm product people use the Pre, but we couldn't even hold the hardware in hand. While a few company's do this with pre-release hardware, it is a big risk to do this with a flagship product. How are reviewers, like myself, supposed to make any kind of judgment on the phone? It seemed like Palm wasn't quite ready to show off the Pre.

The Long Wait for WebOS

It became more and more apparent that the Palm Pre wasn't ready for prime time. At CES, Palm said that the Pre would arrive on Sprint in the "first half of 2009." But as 2009 went on, we saw no signs of the Pre. Oddly, Palm did release the Palm Treo Pro, a smartphone running Windows Mobile 6.1. I wondered: Was this a stopgap to tide customers over until the release of the Pre?

In a Q&A session with RCR Wireless News, Sprint/Nextel CEO Dan Hesse stated that the carrier wouldn't rush the Pre's release date. He said that Sprint and Palm are working tirelessly to bring it out as soon as possible, but they wanted to be entirely confident that the Pre was in perfect condition when it was released. This pretty much confirmed our prediction that the Pre's announcement was, ahem, premature.

In the meantime, RIM, Samsung, Nokia, HTC and other manufacturers were churning out BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Symbian phones with better cameras, larger screens and more capacity than the Pre. Additionally, Google's Android OS gained some traction with more app developers turning to the platform and the launch the HTC Magic in Europe. On top of everything, rumors of the next iPhone were building momentum.

Finally, Sprint and Palm announced a June 9 availability of the Pre for $200 with a two-year contract. And, as fate would have it, the iPhone 3GS launched ten days later. With more storage capacity for the price, a better camera and a much stronger app portfolio, the iPhone 3GS overshadowed the Pre. I don't think Palm was trying to compete with the iPhone by having a close launch date: June was the last month in the first half of 2009, which was the time frame Palm had promised back in January.

Struggling Smartphones

Reviews for the Palm Pre generally agreed that WebOS was excellent, but the hardware needed some work. For one, the Palm Pre's keyboard was incredibly frustrating to use with its tiny, gummy keys and sharp edges. And you were forced to use the keypad, since Palm did not develop a software keyboard. Many reviewers griped about the limited 8GB of storage, which seemed measly compared to the 16GB and 32GB iPhone 3GS models and BlackBerry, Nokia and Windows Mobile phones with expandable memory.

Additionally, the decision to launch exclusively with Sprint most certainly harmed the platform more than it helped it. Initially, it seemed to make sense: Sprint did not have any flagship smartphones on its roster. In other words, it didn't have an iPhone. By having exclusive rights to sell the Pre, Sprint could gain new customers in the way AT&T had with the iPhone. But Sprint's monopoly went on for far too long and prevented Palm from reaching a wider audience. Sprint was the number three carrier and the Pre was simply not a strong enough device to pull in new customers. By the time the Pre came to Verizon (as the Pre Plus, with some slight hardware tweaks), the carrier was already pushing its Droid line of products, like the Motorola Droid. And once Sprint lost its exclusivity, it also realized it had much more pull with Android devices, like the Samsung Moment and particularly the HTC EVO 4G, and completely abandoned marketing efforts around the WebOS phones.

We also didn't see another WebOS phone to follow up the Pre until November 2009 with the launch of the Palm Pixi, a lower end device targeted toward smartphone newbies. The Pixi was basically a smaller version of the Pre with a smaller display and even tinier keyboard. Like the Pre, the Pixi launched exclusively on Sprint and eventually made its way to Verizon. Essentially, Palm wasn't doing any hardware innovation; it was merely taking the same Pre hardware and making slight improvements to it. But really, more capacity, a better keyboard and video recording should have been on the first Pre at launch.

Perhaps Palm's biggest failure, however, was in apps. Developers didn't have access to WebOS tools until many months after the phone was announced. And it didn't let developers charge for apps until August--two months after the Pre launched. By the time Palm had worked out its developer program, it was pretty much confirmed that WebOS wasn't going anywhere and developers turned their sights to the Android Market.

HP's Failed Revival

HP purchased Palm in April 2010 in a $1.2 billion acquisition that finalized in June of that year. Even though Palm was struggling, the tech community seemed to agree that HP had the resources to lift WebOS off the ground. HP's intention was to further develop the WebOS platform, continue to release Pre smartphones and expand the platform to other products, including tablets and printers. In February 2011, right before the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, HP held a large media event where it unveiled the HP Veer 4G, the HP Pre 3 and the HP Touchpad, the first WebOS tablet.

The Veer 4G was fairly unremarkable--basically a shrunken down Pre--but a decent phone. The Pre 3 seemed promising, but unfortunately never came to market (and probably never will given today's announcement). The most buzz surrounded the Touchpad and again, it seemed like it could take on Apple's market leader. The tablet seemed like an ideal medium for WebOS, with its fluid graphics and gesture-based controls.

But it was the Pre all over again when HP finally launched the Touchpad five months after the announcement. The Touchpad was met with heavy criticism for its buggy, slow performance, poor app selection and clunky hardware. My colleague Melissa Perenson gave it a harsh, but deserved rating of 2.5 stars noting that it "ships with some rough, buggy spots in its software, hobbled features that need a fix through a later over-the-air update, and a lack of compelling apps..."

Don't Blame the OS

The headline for this article is perhaps is a bit misleading. Really, it wasn't WebOS that failed, but a combination of other factors like marketing, hardware and app development. The biggest mistake both HP and Palm made was announcing an unfinished product six months before its launch. It is a huge risk in the fast-moving mobile world. WebOS's failure is a sad story, but one that other tech companies--especially those in the mobile space--can learn from.

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