It may be time to count HP and WebOS out

Mobile Jul 24, 2011 No Comments

With the launch of the Touchpad having come and gone a year after HP’s purchase of Palm and WebOS, we’re now at a point where it might be fair to assess the current state of WebOS and its future.  HP released the Veer months ago to not so much of a bad reception as a non-reception.  The phone was too small to make any impact whatsoever on the market, leaving everyone to hope that the Touchpad and the Pre 3 would be the breakout devices for WebOS.  Right now, WebOS’s marketshare sits somewhere between 1% and 3% depending on what sources and numbers you use.  Mobilified, like other sites, has been fairly positive about both the quality of WebOS and its future in the mobile space.  Nearing the end of July 2011, however, it may be time to revisit that view.

It’s hard to believe that WebOS has now been in the marketplace for over two years.  To be fair, those two years have been tumultuous and Palm/HP has faced a number of challenges to delivering a competitive product into the marketplace.  The original Pre was lacking in both hardware quality and software refinement.  Palm didn’t move fast enough in iterating its products for it to make any impact before they were bought by HP.  The transition to HP presumably slowed things down, as they managed to only release the Pre 2 (which might as well have been called the Pre Plus Plus) and the disappointing Veer before the launch of the Touchpad.  Now, once again, reviews have been largely negative with a palpable sense of disappointment.  In fact, disappointment seems to be a trend when it comes to WebOS, going back all the way to the beginning.

Consider these reviews of the original Palm Pre, way back in summer 2009:

Jason Chen for Gizmodo:

 The software is agile, smart and capable. The hardware, on the other hand, is a liability. If Palm can get someone else to design and build their hardware—someone who has hands and can feel what a phone is like when physically used, that phone might just be one of the best phones on the market…

…Impressive start to an OS that should form the base of some quality phones in the future

Hardware quality is lacking, and feels flimsy and plasticky compared to the G1, G2 and the iPhone.

Joshua Topolsky, writing for Engadget:

…Generally speaking, the Pre’s UI makes sense and makes it easy to get things done rather quickly and painlessly. It is an impressive beast, though a beast nonetheless — and that means taming will be in order. We saw plenty of little glitches: messages that wouldn’t pop up (or go away), transitions that hung for a bit, and we definitely had a crash or two. In particular, it seems like Palm still needs to work on memory management — we noticed the device getting a little laggy after a day of heavier use, so we’re thinking not every process is being killed completely.

Keeping us hopeful about these issues is the way in which Palm plans to address them. According to the company, updates for the phone will be made OTA as necessary, which means they’ll be able to put out fires quickly, and respond to customer needs with greater agility than a lot of their competition. We have a feeling we’ll see a handful of fixes just after launch based on our conversations….

…There’s also no guarantee of developer support with this phone. As we mention earlier, Palm needs to stoke those fires or the Pre will quickly be cemented as a tiny island in a large sea. We think the platform looks very promising, but with no big push (yet) to put a great SDK into dev’s hands, and no existing user base for those apps, it’s hard to feel assurance that the software will come.

For the record, those updates to the original Pre didn’t really help matters.  Most of the OTA updates slowed the phone down until some marginal improvements around v. 1.4.

It’s clear that many people loved the cards metaphor and the general design of WebOS but felt let down by the final, full product.  Now compare that to reviews of the Touchpad from this last month, particularly the comments by Topolsky again, now writing for Thisismynext:

From the start of using this tablet, it was clear to me that HP had some work left to do on tuning and tightening the OS, and that lack of polish created frustrating and disappointing moments while using the TouchPad. In particular, I found touch sensitivity and general fluidity of the user interface to be wanting badly at times…

…But — and this is a big one — there is some real light at the end of this tunnel. I spoke with Jon Rubinstein and others at HP, and was assured that nearly all of the bugs and issues I’ve been experiencing will be fixed in an OTA update coming shortly after the device launches.

So two years later, the release of a WebOS product is met with disappointment of the software refinement and a company’s promise to deliver an update that will hopefully fix those issues.  Topolsky continues:

The TouchPad is far from perfect — really, not even close right now. Still, there is DNA here that is amazing, and deserves to be given a second look. What HP has done in just a year with webOS is commendable, and if the fixes for some of these big, ugly bugs come as fast as the company is promising, the TouchPad could be the contender everyone over there thinks it is.

Still, the bottom line here is that the stability and smoothness of the user experience is not up to par with the iPad or something like the Galaxy Tab 10.1, even if many of the underlying ideas are actually a lot better and more intuitive than what the competition offers. That, coupled with the minuscule number of quality apps available at launch make this a bit of a hard sell right now. If HP can convince developers to get behind this product, and the company can laser focus on the end-user experience, becoming the number two player in tablets isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Really.

When Topolsky mentions the progress HP made in a year, he’s referring to transitioning WebOS from the small screen to the tablet form factor.  Meanwhile, the Veer and the Pre 2 currently run WebOS 2.x, evolutions of the OS that were very minor, something we’ll discuss more about later.  The early reviews of the Touchpad seem to be the same as for the original Pre: great software ideas and design, but hampered by sluggishness in the software and disappointing industrial design.  With the Pre 3 set to launch sometime in the next few months, what is likely to change?

The Pre 3 is a perfect example of the slow pace of innovation from Palm/HP.  It shares the same industrial design as the original Pre except that it is bigger and maintains the soft-touch plastic introduced in the Pre 2.  If the build quality of the Veer is any indication, the slider mechanism should be much improved over the Pre and Pre 2.  Considering the improved performance of the Pre 2, the Pre 3 will probably perform adequately with a 1.4 GHz processor, but it is hitting the market against nearly all new Android phones and the next iPhone sporting dual core processors.  Even if all of the software bugs are worked out from previous versions of WebOS, the high 1.4 GHz clock speed is likely to just drain the battery more, something that was a major pain point of the original Pre.  In many ways, the Pre 3 is the original Pre done right, but it’s two years too late.  While Apple, and to a lesser degree Microsoft, has proven that hardware specs aren’t everything in the smartphone race, they do matter a little bit and the Pre is once again left far behind as far as consumers are concerned.  Even taking Apple out of the equation, compare the industrial design of the Pre 3 to any high-end handset by HTC, Motorola or even Samsung.  It’s not even close, and that matters to consumers who walk into their wireless carrier’s store.

What’s even more disappointing, however, is the lack of progress on the OS itself.  WebOS was supposed to be the jewel of Palm that was worth 1 billion dollars to HP.  It’s still an elegant system with an intuitive user interface, but how has it progressed since its early inception by Matias Duarte?  Stacked cards, JustType and Quick Actions are great features of the OS, but that’s a pretty bare list for two years of work.  WebOS seems to have languished through all of these transitions, and you can’t help but think that the focus on software development for the Touchpad has distracted the WebOS team from making serious improvements in the same way that we pointed out that the tablet has distracted the Android team.

With Jon Rubenstein’s reassignment to a different role within HP, almost nobody is left from the original Palm team that developed WebOS.  With that in mind, where does WebOS stand?

  • Very little developer support
  • No compelling products on the market or ready to come to market
  • Unimpressive progress under HP’s control so far

Nobody expects WebOS to go away anytime soon.  HP seems committed to using it in one form or another across all of its products.  It is unquestionably going to be used as a selling point to enterprise customers if this interview with new WebOS director Steven Dewitt and Jon Rubenstein is any indication.  But will WebOS be a commercial success?  Will it finally reach that point where it explodes into the third major mobile platform?  At this point, how can it?  Windows Phone is struggling mightily, yet it has far more developer support and with Nokia’s help may be able to carve out the third place position that everyone is hoping for.  Given Windows Phone’s licensing model and power player support from Microsoft and Nokia, the idea that WebOS could be more successful seems unlikely.  With the current market looking more and more like a two-player race between Android and iOS, there may not be room for HP and WebOS in the consumer market.

If these predictions are accurate, it is a shame.  Like everyone else, I’ve found WebOS to be a delightful operating system and would like to see it succeed.  At some point, however, we have to start evaluating it on it’s current state and not on its potential.  In that light, things don’t look good for WebOS, and it’s long past the stage of giving it the benefit of the doubt.

No Responses to “It may be time to count HP and WebOS out”

Leave a Reply