WebOS perishes, leaving no ripples in its wake

The once-promising mobile OS never came close to its promise under HP and departs with no impact on the mobile market

Let me warn you right now: This is not a kind eulogy. HP pulled the plug yesterday on its WebOS-based TouchPad tablet and Pre and Pixi smartphones, a little more than a year after it bought Palm to get WebOS and six months after HP announced grandiose plans to implement WebOS across smartphones, tablets, and PCs.

Crusty pundits like me and my colleague Bill Snyder doubted from the beginning whether HP could pull it off, for the simple reason that WebOS's inventors at Palm were never able to accomplish the same, and HP bet on them to make it work. Plus, HP's own prowess in the PC market has been questionable for some time, so it was never clear what HP brought to the table other than a marquee name.

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The strategy itself was plausible -- for a company with the drive, vision, and ability to pull it off. That wasn't HP, and it was not Palm.

You might recall that Palm spent nearly a decade changing hands or management teams (or both) after its early halcyon days of the Palm Pilot and later the lesser glory of the Treo. A few years back, Palm brought in Jon Rubinstein as CEO, hoping his role as one of the creators of the original iPod would bring Apple-like savvy and execution to Palm. The result was WebOS and the original Palm Pre.

When the Palm Pre debuted in 2009, the then two-year-old iPhone was not the juggernaut it is today. It had a following, but its lack of multitasking and copy and paste, plus very limited business security capabilities, caused many people to dismiss it as an Apple "fanboy toy." There was already a sense that the old-school mobile device represented by the Research in Motion BlackBerry was on its way out, but it was an open question as to what might take its place.

The original Palm Pre and its WebOS had some very nice capabilities, such as multitasking, its elegant card-based UI, and strong integration of communications capabilities across apps. But overall, it felt like an iPhone wannabe, an ersatz clone that had a few advantages but more disadvantages than the real thing. People bought the real thing instead.

Rubinstein may have come from Apple, but he couldn't out-Apple Apple, at least not in that first version. Of course, Palm had the underdog thing going for it at that point, and a band of loyalists willing to give Palm time -- very much like the scenario Apple went through (successfully) in the early 2000s.

A year after the first Pre and WebOS, most carriers had given up on the platform. Although Verizon Wireless originally had WebOS plans, it never acted on them, leaving early champion Sprint the sole provider -- and Sprint stopped actively marketing it very quickly once the first Pre proved not to be an iPhone killer. Palm did come out with several OS updates in the year that followed its debut, but they were minor, obvious fixes that didn't propel WebOS meaningfully forward.

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