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

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Then in spring 2010, HP announced its plans to buy Palm, viewing WebOS as a platform it could use to tie multiple devices -- smartphones, tablets, printers, and PCs -- into a unified ecosystem that might give Apple a run for its money and keep Microsoft and its fractured OS portfolio to the side.

A few months later, HP's Palm Business Unit debuted WebOS 2.0, another minor upgrade that didn't warrant the full-version number change and certainly didn't give the iPhone or the newly surging Android any meaningful competition. In fact, it just reminded me that the gap had widened. In the customer world, no one batted an eye, and anyone who did notice didn't care.

But HP still believed -- or at least the head of the PC division, Todd Bradley, did. Because in March 2011, he and Rubinstein announced HP's grand WebOS plans at a media extravaganza: the TouchPad tablet, the Pre 3 series of smartphones and the consumery Veer series, and the intent to run WebOS on its PCs (on top of Windows, HP later said). I was shocked that the WebOS as pitched by Rubinstein was basically the same as the first version, and the advantages he was touting such as multitasking were long dead issues in the market. All such events are hyperbolic, but the zeal with which he and Bradley promoted WebOS was extreme even in that context. It was definitely a "get a room" moment, yet it felt unconvincing. CEO Léo Apotheker also made similar exuberant commitments about WebOS that spring.

When the TouchPad finally shipped in July, it was a disappointment, unable to compete with the original iPad, much less than iPad 2 that had taken the world by storm. Even normally kind reviewers were notably neutral. After all, it offered no big advancement over the original WebOS, and in the intervening two years, Apple had moved iOS by leaps and bounds, while Google had finally brought a credible alternative to market. The hardware was also pokey, and had little style. Statements from HP executives after the release that said it was gunning to be No. 2 in the market were a sad commentary on the gap between the promise of WebOS and its reality.

The Pre 3 never shipped. I had a prototype to test while waiting for the real thing to arrive (no longer a possibility), and I can say now that it was a "meh" product, not that different from the original Pre.

There are reports that HP execs have blamed its mediocre TouchPad and Pre hardware for the end of that business, telling Palm Business Unit employees that it may license WebOS to other device makers, once it detaches the OS from its Qualcomm hardware ties. That may be what HP is saying internally, but it makes no sense. If the hardware were the real problem, HP would have kept its WebOS devices officially alive as it sought a new design and manufacturer -- or licensees to take over -- for the next round. Instead, HP ingloriously dumped its WebOS devices -- putting a bullet in its head so publicly just a few weeks after the product relaunch and just months after exuberant praise from Apotheker on down. After all that bravado and then quick abandonment, no Samsung, HTC, or LG would be foolish enough to step in and trust anything HP had to say about the technology, much less license it. It's equally hard to believe that HP intends to use WebOS in any significant way other than maybe keep it for its associated patents.

Let's get real: WebOS was never bad, and it had some delightful aspects. But it was never great.

Now that HP has formally pulled the plug on WebOS as a mobile and PC platform, the sad truth is that it doesn't matter. WebOS had no meaningful impact on the market, and its absence will harm no one (other than the employees at HP's Palm unit).

Even sadder, its death will actually help some people. Several people I know at HP say they and countlesss colleagues have been using barely functional cellphones for a year because HP refuses to buy iPhones, BlackBerrys, or other competing devices for its employees -- yet the Pre hasn't been available for months and months from the carriers, so HP couldn't give employees Pres, either. At least now these suffering employees can get smartphones that work.

I wish WebOS had made an impact, but it didn't. That's its sad legacy: It didn't leave one.

This article, "WebOS perishes, leaving no ripples in its wake," 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.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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