WebOS: What Went Wrong?

Struggling Smartphones

Palm Pre Plus
Reviews for the Palm Pre generally agreed that WebOS was excellent, but the hardware needed some work. For one thing, 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 elected not to develop a software keyboard. Many reviewers griped about the limited 8GB of storage, which seemed measly compared with the 16GB and 32GB iPhone 3GS models as well as the BlackBerry, Nokia, and Windows Mobile phones with expandable memory.

Additionally, the decision to launch exclusively with Sprint most certainly harmed WebOS more than it helped the platform. Initially, the arrangement 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 simply wasn't 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), that carrier was already pushing its Droid line of products, such as the Motorola Droid. And once Sprint lost its exclusivity, it also realized that it had much more pull with Android devices, including the Samsung Moment and particularly the HTC EVO 4G; as a result, it completely abandoned marketing efforts for the WebOS phones.

Palm Pixi Plus
We also didn’t see another WebOS phone to follow up the Pre until November 2009's launch of the Palm Pixi, a lower-end device targeted toward smartphone newbies. The Pixi was basically a more compact version of the Pre with a smaller display and an 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. 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's announcement. And it didn't let developers charge for apps until August--two months after the Pre launched. By the time Palm had worked out the 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 and Palm
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.

HP TouchPad
The Veer 4G was fairly unremarkable--basically a shrunken down Pre--but it was still a decent phone. The Pre 3 seemed promising, but unfortunately it didn't come to market (and probably never will, given today’s announcement). The most buzz surrounded the TouchPad--and, again, it seemed as if it could take on Apple’s market-leading iPad. Tablets seemed like an ideal environment 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 came under heavy criticism for its buggy and slow performance, its poor app selection, and its clunky hardware. My colleague Melissa Perenson gave it a harsh but deserved rating of 2.5 stars (out of 5), 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, such as marketing, hardware, and app development. The biggest mistake that both HP and Palm made was announcing an unfinished product six months before its launch. Doing so 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 arena--can learn from.

Product mentioned in this article

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  • HP TouchPad Tablet

    The first WebOS tablet gets some things right, but stumbles more than it succeeds.

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