WebOS: What Went Wrong?

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WebOS: What Went Wrong?
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 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 the operating system would look like. Palm OS, which was available on some of the earliest PDAs and smartphones (such as the Pilot, the Treo, and the Centro), did not have the features or aesthetics to compete with the iPhone, RIM’s BlackBerry OS, or even Windows Mobile.

Palm Pre
Fast-forward to the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show: Palm staged a huge media event, unveiling 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--the ex-Apple engineer who helped create the iPod--at the helm. 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, pretty much no smartphone could match the iPhone when it came to apps, multimedia features, and user-friendly design. Android was hardly a threat with only one phone, the clunky G1, available in the United States. The Palm Pre looked slick, too. With its full touch display and slide-out QWERTY keyboard, it hit the sweet spot between the iPhone and the BlackBerry. The term “iPhone killer” was certainly thrown around a lot at its debut.

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 representatives use the Pre, but we couldn’t even hold the hardware in our hands. While a few other companies do the same with their prerelease hardware, it is a big risk to take this approach with a flagship product. How were reviewers, like myself, supposed to make any kind of judgment on the phone? Palm seemed not 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 sign 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 were working tirelessly to bring it out as soon as possible, but that they wanted to be entirely confident that the Pre was in perfect condition when it released. That pretty much confirmed our prediction that the Pre’s announcement was, ahem, premature.

Palm Pre vs. iPhone
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 as more app developers turned to the platform and the HTC Magic launched in Europe. On top of everything, rumors of the next iPhone were building momentum.

Finally, Sprint and Palm announced a June 9 availability for the Pre, at a price of $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.

At a Glance
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