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The death of webOS is no real surprise to me; I’m surprised it lasted this long

Jonathan Morris
August 19, 2011

Writing a blog about the demise of webOS when HP is still claiming it may have a future, possibly licensing it to other manufacturers, may seem a bit premature, but I’m fairly confident I’ll be proved right.

While this blog may come back to haunt me when someone steps in, buys the OS and makes a huge success of things, I’m going to take the risk anyway.

I’ve always looked down on webOS in a rather arrogant fashion, firmly believing for some time that it was certain to fail for a number of reasons. I’m by no means unique either. This blog isn’t about me being smug, even if I am!

When Palm proudly launched the Pre back in 2009, running the all-new webOS, I’ll admit I was impressed. By the time it went on sale in the UK, some considerable time later, I was invited to go and sit through a demonstration ahead of being given my review unit.

O2 was very proud to have bagged the exclusive, but with the exception of the iPhone, the network had been making some pretty poor decisions on handset procurement at the time. I’ll admit that I was guilty of making a few snide remarks about O2’s exclusive meaning everyone else had simply said ‘no thanks’ to Palm.

Let’s remember that Palm OS had been left to die a horrible death, thanks to years of neglect. As such, Palm was even forced to release devices running Windows Mobile so they could include support for ‘basic’ things like 3G. It acted as a bridge between Palm OS and webOS, but had the effect of getting most Palm OS users to jump ship. I always wondered how many would come back, but I think we now know it wasn’t many.

The temporary use of Windows Mobile might not have been so bad if Palm hadn’t opted to go with a rather odd (square) screen size, which meant many existing Windows Mobile apps wouldn’t run!

But, back to the product demonstration. It may be a bit arrogant to say that I know a lot about technology, but I’ve worked in tech for around 20 years and hope that I really do. It’s therefore rather patronising to go to a demonstration and be told that I can’t be given a Palm Pre until I’ve been shown how a smartphone works, and then get shown features of the OS that I’d be able to discover for myself.

In fact, reviewing a device well should be done as if I’m a normal consumer without the benefit of a top man at Palm giving personal guidance. By all means hand me a press release highlighting key-features, but don’t try and wow me with cool features and hope I’ll miss the shortcomings, or even agree to ignore them.

However, I wasn’t being singled out as it’s what they did to everyone. What’s more, Palm bragged about giving O2 shop staff training on how to sell the Pre too. Every manufacturer visits stores to help staff sell a product, by highlighting cool features, but Palm gave the impression that O2 couldn’t even begin to sell the phone until they’d had the training. How complicated was this thing going to be?

Palm, it seems, had built an OS that was incredibly slick to look at, but supposedly needed everyone to be trained. Straight away, that set alarm bells ringing.

We’d all seen this exciting new OS at the Consumer Electronics Show and been amazed. It was the biggest thing of CES in January 2009. Everyone was talking about it, but let’s not allow history to paint too glorious a picture. As soon as the snazzy demonstration videos had been watched over and over again, many people were wondering how Palm was really going to get back into the market that had changed so much since Palm OS.

There were loads of other warnings, like the lack of apps, no way to pay for apps from the outset, restrictions on functionality with the first revisions of the OS, terrible advertising campaigns (including weird videos that made me scared of the phone) and plenty more.

Subsequent updates to the hardware, including the candybar Palm Pixi, gave us more of the same. The really clever feature, the Touchstone inductive charging option, wasn’t marketed well at all. What’s more, on our review sample, I discovered how exact you needed to place the phone on the charging base to get it to charge at all. Imagine picking your Pre up in the morning to find it hadn’t charged at all, as you’re about to begin a full day on the road. Well, that’s exactly what could happen.

Anyway, this isn’t a history lesson, so let’s jump forward to when HP stepped in and we got another bunch of new devices. Was there loads of innovation? Not particularly on the smartphone side, hence no operator in the UK showing any interest at all. O2 had already given up by the time the Pixi Plus was released.

But, there was a new tablet. The TouchPad looked great, and showed how webOS could be adapted to work very well in the tablet ‘space’. This demonstrated HP’s belief that webOS would find itself inside all of its new devices going forward, extending to computers and printers. A bold vision, sure. Let’s just ignore the fact that developers were not really that bothered, and from what I have been told, developing for the TouchPad wasn’t quite the same as developing for one of the smartphones.

When it came to requesting a review unit for What Mobile, I was shocked to discover that HP had decided to reintroduce the same policy Palm had done in 2009. I was told to attend a demonstration session, before being put on a list to receive a review model.

HP have asked that journalists attend a briefing before they receive review units.

We are holding a demo session tomorrow at 4.45pm at our Office- would be good if you could come along.

A HP product expert will give you a 30 minute demonstration of the key features of The TouchPad and you will also have the opportunity to ask him any burning questions you might have about the TouchPad and webOS.

Once you have received the demo we hope to have a review unit to you within a few weeks.

I opted to decline, which might seem like a ridiculous decision, but thought I’d wait until common sense prevailed and they sent one out like any other manufacturer wanting to get a product reviewed.

Now there’s no need.

The really disappointing thing is that webOS is nice. But, so are many other OSes that have uncertain futures. In the UK, that’s Samsung’s bada OS, MeeGo, Symbian and possibly even Windows Phone OS. Consumers are currently ‘turned on’ by apps and content. If you don’t have that, you’re at a significant disadvantage irrespective of how slick the user interface is.

Apple pioneered the slick UI, with fancy animated transitions and effects. With Android, you can even customise these on some handsets – or turn them off when you no longer go ‘wow’ and simply say ‘meh’. Even RIM’s PlayBook has to do more than just look awesome.

Microsoft is gradually building up its app collection, and RIM has got BBM (even if it’s reputation has taken a hit of late). Even Nokia, despite all of its problems, claims to have around nine million app downloads a day.

People who live and breathe technology often argue that we need the competition, to keep the likes of Apple and Google on their toes and stop them from taking over the world. That’s a fair point, but webOS (and no doubt others) ended up being no different to a rural post office or Woolworths.

Everyone said how important they were to have too, but forgot to actually use them.

 

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