RIP webOS: A RIMinder of What Can Happen
A friend asked me what I thought of the recent announcement by HP that they were, in effect, burying webOS. It’s funny to think about it because I go back years with Palm (the company who developed webOS and who was purchased by HP last year). There was a time when Palm was a giant in the tech industry. Back in the late 90’s / early 2000’s, people didn’t inquire about buying a PDA, they wanted a “Palm”, regardless if it was a PDA by Sony, Microsoft, HP, or Sharp. I remember being envious of the older, more established engineers at my first IT job (back when I was just 20) who would break out their Palm Pilots. I was just beginning my gadget lust at the time, and wanted so badly to be like these guys. I did eventually buy one, and that started a whole wave of gadgets (which, somehow, my poor wife managed to put up with, even if it was more than any normal person should have dealt with). And now, the last remnant of their legacy is gone. Sure, HP claims that they are looking for ways to expand the value of webOS, but the bottom line is if they don’t believe in it enough to manufacture devices based on it themselves, why should any other company?
From a tech point of view, it’s bittersweet. Palm is one of those companies that just grew too complacent and arrogant years ago, and made some bad moves. First it was spinning off the OS division of the company into PalmSource, which made zero sense, and then went on to change the remnant’s name to PalmOne (and subsequently changed it back). They had a great thing in the Treo line but held on too long to the 600-series design; by the time the 680 rolled around, it was looking tired and people were looking for the next big thing. They also held on too long to the original PalmOS, and it was pretty obvious that it did not have the ability to keep up with changing needs of the mobile market. By the time the “next generation” version of PalmOS was ready, “Cobalt” (or 6.0 / 6.1), no one wanted to license it (and by all indications, Cobalt was a stop-gap OS anyway). That wasted time could have been spent on development of their true next generation mobile OS.
PalmSource got bought by ACCESS in China and went off into obscurity. Palm made a misstep by licensing Windows Mobile for their Treo; again, not only a stop-gap but a commentary on the state of PalmOS. By the time they finally got around to webOS, which was technically impressive, they released it on subpar hardware (the Pre) and stayed too long in an exclusivity contract with Sprint. They followed this up with the lackluster successors (the Palm Pre Plus, which just doubled the memory and included a better slider mechanism; and the Palm Pixi), then waiting too long to release the Pre 2. When that did arrive, it was almost identical to the original Pre. On top of all of this was Verizon and AT&T’s non-existent marketing for the device and Palm’s own bizarre commercials for the Pre (seriously, WTF?).
Palm was mismanaged and by then it was simply too late; they didn’t have the resources to continue with any plans for upgraded devices or expansions into new markets such as tablets, and were an easy target for a buy out. The HP gestalt swept in and assimilated the remains… only to basically give up on webOS after a year or so.
You know who reminds me of Palm, though?
Everything RIM is doing now, and how big they are, reminds me of Palm in the late 90’s / early 2000’s. Sure, BlackBerry is a recognizable brand (like Palm once was) and they have the lead in their market segment (Palm did for PDAs and smartphones), but look how long they’ve held on to BlackBerry OS, continue to release similar looking devices with minimal spec changes, and are dragging their feet on their next generation OS. I see RIM as being the Roman Empire in decline, too blind to see the cracks in their foundation and not realizing that it was already over by the time the Visigoths were on the horizon.