HP's WebOS shake-up: Too late to tackle Apple?

Hewlett-Packard shifts WebOS founder to 'product innovation' role, and an ops guy takes over the Palm business

In a surprise, Hewlett-Packard on Monday moved Jon Rubinstein out of his leadership role at the Palm business unit responsible for WebOS, the TouchPad tablet, and Pre smartphones into a "product innovation" role in HP's Personal Systems Group, covering PCs and printers. An operations-oriented manager -- Stephen DeWitt, formerly the Americas sales chief at the Personal Systems Group -- takes over the Palm business unit.

Rubinstein -- known as "Ruby" in the tech industry -- cut his teeth at Apple during the critical formative period of the iPod as one of its creators and was hired to rescue Palm several years ago. As Palm's chief, he led the development of WebOS, which looked initially as it might seriously take on the iPhone, but ended up gaining little traction, causing Palm to put it up for sale a year later and landing in HP's hands.

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The original WebOS had an intriguing card-deck metaphor, but suffered in comparison to the iPhone's iOS in several areas, including performance, applications, and security. Ironically, the HP TouchPad released a couple weeks ago as the company's answer to the iPad followed the same script as the Pre: suffering in comparison to the iPad's iOS in performance, applications, and security. As I noted in my TouchPad review, much of the really cool stuff in the TouchPad was old WebOS technology, debuting in the 2.x version last fall, and I wondered why so little had been done to make the TouchPad shine in other areas in the interim.

HP's official statement is very nice to Rubinstein, citing him as the WebOS's "visionary." But it seems obvious that Rubinstein's difficulty in translating that vision to a compelling product line (remember, hardly any carriers have chosen to sell the Pre 2 or Pixi smartphones released this winter, either) got HP's leadership to look for a different leader. As HP's Todd Bradley, the executive vice president in charge of the Personal Systems Group put it in a statement: "Stephen DeWitt has a proven ability to build and scale organizations into global, multibillion-dollar operations, and I am confident that he will take WebOS to the next level." Translation: We need someone who can make a business out of this WebOS investment.

The stakes for HP are high: It's promised that WebOS will be the common operating system across all its personal devices: PCs (running on top of Windows), tablets, smartphones, and printers. The goal is to create a broad HP ecosystem that might have the power to compete with Apple's formidable Mac OS X, iPhone, iPad, iPod, and iTunes ecosystem.

Apple is nearly flawless in its execution, though it does make mistakes; Final Cut Pro X is the most recent, and MobileMe is perhaps the most prominent flop in recent memory. Apple is also both relentless and cannily creative. For HP to have a chance at being a significant alternative to Apple in the new "post-PC" market, its execution on the WebOS promise has to be as good as Apple's has been on iOS -- offering technology with unrealized potential won't be good enough.

The Rubinstein-led Palm and now HP have delivered less than the WebOS vision's promise. So perhaps DeWitt's appointment so soon after the TouchPad disappointment is a sign that HP is truly serious about securing a strong position in the post-PC future by executing on the WebOS vision. Let's just hope it doesn't forget the other half of the secret formula: compelling, magical, innovative design.

This article, "HP's WebOS shake-up: Too late to tackle Apple?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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