Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Story of Where Palm Went Wrong


This is the story of where Palm went wrong.
Earlier this week an article was published by The New York Times that served as a sort of post-mortem of webOS now that it’s going open source. The title: “H.P.’s TouchPad, Some Say, Was Built on Flawed Software”. Ignoring the annoying abbreviation of “H.P.” (even HP does it without the periods) and capitalization of webOS, the article talks to a few unnamed former Palm employees and Paul Mercer, formerly the Senior Director of Software at Palm, who characterizes webOS as “ahead of its time” for using web technology as the basis for the OS, even though the base of “WebKit remains not ready for prime time.” The gist of the article is that Palm, the Pre, HP, and the TouchPad all failed because of the software.
I’m not normally one to be so blunt and pointed on this blog, but as you can imagine I (along with plenty still working at HP and on webOS development) take issue with that claim. So, Mr. Mercer and Brian X. Chen of The New York Times, after taking a few days to mull this over and consider the points laid forth in your piece, I must throw down this gauntlet: You are wrong.
I concede that out of the gate the Pre and webOS did not live up to expectations. The idea of an iPhone killer wasn’t such a quaint notion back in early 2009 as it is today, so expectations for the Pre were fairly high. There was nothing Palm could do to contain the hype. In fact, they somewhat set themselves up with the stunning reveal at CES 2009, winning the coveted Best of Show. It didn’t help that everybody wanted Palm to succeed – America loves a good comeback story.
But when the Pre finally hit Sprint stores in June 2009, it was underwhelming. The software, while improved from January, was still slow and buggy. The App Catalog had a paltry few dozen apps available, all free. The Pre itself was poorly built and prone to hardware failures (I myself went through four units in two months before finally getting one that lasted well over a year and lives on today as part of my Sprint FrankenPre 2).
But that’s to be expected. It’s a first generation product, they’re never perfect. They never have all of the features and they never ship bug free. That’s the nature of the beast – you can either spend all eternity tweaking and fixing before releasing and the company goes belly up in the meantime because you didn’t sell anything, or you can release it and hope that customers are willing to put up with the software flaws for the short time it hopefully takes you to fix them.
So, yes, webOS as it existed on June 6, 2009, was flawed. So were iOS and Android when they launched. iPhone OS (as it was known back then) didn’t support third party apps; Android looked like crap for the first three or four versions. It takes time to work these things out, and by-and-large they can be solved, the company can work past them, and put out quality product.

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