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R.I.P. webOS, we hardly knew ye

HP's Jon Rubinstein unveils the TouchPad tablet Feb. 9, 2011.
HP's Jon Rubinstein unveils the TouchPad tablet Feb. 9, 2011.

When Palm introduced the Pre, it represented a major threat to the iPhone. It was a beautiful vessel for webOS, an elegant operating system built to solve all of the problems users had with Apple's darling. Today, after two scant years, the phone and its subsequent tablet are dead, and any hope for future webOS products would be foolish. How did good technology, backed by the most powerful brands in the business, fall so far so fast?

First, the part of the news that I'm referring to: In April 2010, HP purchased Palm in its entirety with the intent of launching a family of webOS devices to compete with Apple. This year, the new owner inauspiciously launched several phones and a tablet, none of which lived up to reviewers' measured expectations. Developers continued to ignore the platform, and so did customers.

Today, according to a statement, HP is officially discontinuing "operations for webOS devices, specifically the TouchPad and webOS phones." The company says that it will "continue to explore options to optimize the value of webOS software going forward," but since the prior sentence pretty much proclaims that webOS has no value, this is the same as saying they will multiply X by zero, and see what they get.

But why is webOS a big zero? Here are five big reasons:

1. Being slightly better isn't good enough. Reviews back in 2009 proclaimed the Palm Pre better than the iPhone in many ways. But almost every itemized advantage, from multitasking apps to better alerts, were things that could easily be adopted. Both the dominant iPhone and the struggling cub that was Android were able to learn from the Pre's webOS, and co-opt what mattered.

Fast forward to this year, when HP introduced a webOS tablet that wasn't even "slightly better," by any reviewer's estimates, and the story just becomes sadder.

2. Fighting the mobile device fight takes limitless resources. I really mean "limitless," as in, no end in sight. Apple, Google and Microsoft can hammer away for a long time, building device after device, revising software and hardware in the depths of their subterranean laboratories, meeting with partners in secret, all the while filing and acquiring patents and of course, suing the pants off each other. With the exception of perhaps Amazon, not many other companies can do this.

3. There's no room for also-rans. When Palm entered this battle, it was a fight over phones that could give you email and surf the Web. Now it's about operating systems that run applications. Developers spend all their time and resources on one, maybe two, platforms, honing their apps and services. That's why there's a precipitous drop between the number of apps available for iOS and Android products, and those for any other system. WebOS had a slick interface, but no development. (This lack of development has also plagued RIM.)

4. Consumers, like horses, smell fear. The biggest telltale sign that neither Palm nor HP was certain of their joined fate was the dead silence that followed the acquisition. What few phone launches had occurred between summer 2009 and spring 2011 were marginal, and the woulda-coulda iPad killer was nowhere to be seen. So when a company launches a long-delayed product, with a speech full of excuses as to why it's not better, negative reviews aren't necessary. The would-be buyers already know to steer clear.

5. HP is in the PC business. It's very hard for HP and Dell to break free of their Windows roots, because all of their attempts to branch out are effectively funded by Windows PC sales. PC sales are dropping, as the makers and Microsoft itself know all too well, but it still represents billions of dollars in sales, where these nascent phone platforms actually lose money. So for HP to say that it plans to go into the webOS tablet business, at a time when Microsoft is planning to launch its own tablet-friendly version of Windows, represents internal conflict for both the product developers and the bean counters.

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Speaking of Microsoft, they too have a mobile operating system that's in a similar position as webOS. Though Windows Phone has been out for nearly a year, it has failed to gain any significant market share. But Microsoft won't kill it, because it has — for better or for worse — distinguished it from its PC business, and forged a partnership with Nokia that gives it a shot at global success, even if it has to accept a slightly more humiliating position in the U.S. (I call this "Hasselhoffing.")

Frankly, I think we should applaud HP in recognizing that the battle isn't worth fighting. Sony spent years lying to itself and others that the iPod was a fad. Now Sony's contribution to portable music is making iPod and iPhone docks. On the flipside, er, make that the Flip side, Cisco bought the Flip flash camcorder company and in a matter of months managed to put it down, too. Though many think that the Flip product line could have evolved, the simple explanation was that people realized that their cameras and phones already are Flip camcorders, often capable of delivering better videos.

So no, just like I don't think Flip would have been better off on its own, I don't think HP is to blame for the demise of Palm's mobile platform. The feeling of melancholy I get is because we are seeing the true end of an impressive product line. It started with the Palm Pilots, which taught us we could carry a real computer in our pockets. Next came Treos, which proved our phones could have brains, too. WebOS could have been a third act of greatness, if it weren't for the fact that greater forces couldn't help but prevail. There is much Darwinism in this mobile device battle, but webOS was fated to fail.

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