Bad decisions by Palm's senior management team doomed its webOS platform from the beginning, say former Palm employees. But there's a big lesson in webOS's demise.
WebOS never had a chance. It was doomed from the start, because it was flawed at its core, say Palm insiders. It's easy to point fingers after the fact, and that's exactly what several ex-Palm/HP employees are doing in a story published by The New York Times, who claim the operating system meant to challenge Android and iOS was a lame duck from the get-go.
The main problem was webOS's reliance on WebKit, which was the core of the operating system. WebKit is an open-source browser technology and is used by Apple, Google, Research In Motion, and others in smartphones and tablets. The idea behind this decision was it could allow the operating system to be more flexible and make it easier to write applications for it. These supposed benefits turned out to be a red herring.
What's stunning is that Palm was able to create the entire operating system--from concept to debut--in about nine months (by way of comparison, the ideas surrounding iOS first struck former Apple CEO Steve Jobs some 10 years ago). Palm was only able to do that, however, by taking some shortcuts that later bit the company in the behind. For example, Palm employees created each app from scratch, rather than a from a core set of fundamental building blocks. The building blocks were added to the operating system later, and that forced employees and app writers to relearn how to build webOS applications. These and other problems prevented Palm from attracting developers to the platform to create applications that would appeal to customers.
The former Palm employees who spoke to The New York Times lay the blame for this decision at former Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein's feet. They say basing webOS on WebKit was ultimately Rubinstein's call, and, since he was a hardware guy, he lacked the knowledge necessary to develop a new operating system from the ground up. The company was unable to recruit the engineers to create the platform and then update it once the first webOS products shipped in mid-2009.
"Palm was ahead of its time in trying to build a phone software platform using Web technology, and we just weren't able to execute such an ambitious and breakthrough design," said Paul Mercer, former senior director of software at Palm. "Perhaps it never could have been executed because the technology wasn't there yet."
Palm shipped the Pre smartphone six months after debuting webOS at CES 2009. People generally liked the operating system, though the hardware received mixed reviews. The main problem with the Pre and other webOS devices is that they were all just too slow. The operating system felt sluggish and couldn't match the performance of other platforms such as Android and iOS. This is something that Mercer blamed on the WebKit core of the platform.
Palm later put itself up for sale and was acquired by HP in July 2010. Once acquired by HP, a number of webOS-invested managers fled the company, including Mercer and Matias Duarte, vice president of human interface and user experience for webOS.
Palm insiders said that losing Duarte--who took a job with Google to work on Android--was a major blow. "He was webOS. When he left, the vacuum was just palpable. What you're seeing is frankly a bunch of fourth- and fifth-stringers jumping onto webOS in the wake of Duarte's leaving."
The lesson here is a scary one. Palm was an established player in the smartphone market, though it had lost appeal thanks to competition from Apple and Google. The company more or less bet the farm on webOS and wasn't able to create a platform capable of competing with Apple, Google, RIM, and Microsoft. It clearly lost, even after being acquired by HP, a company with the resources to make it successful.
Where does that leave start-ups that want to challenge the establishment?
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