Could a Kickstarter campaign raise enough to make new webOS devices?
There's been a big question mark hanging over webOS since HP announced their plans to open source the operating system: then what? Come September, assuming HP has met their roadmap obligations, Open webOS 1.0 will be free and available for anybody to use. But for it to stand any chance at lasting relevance it's going to need to be put onto devices that people can actually buy.
Last month we talked about the massive hurdles that one would have to overcome to build a webOS smartphone or tablet. Chief among them (and chief among Palm's problems before they were bought by HP) is money. You need money to buy components in bulk. You need money to pay for engineers. You need money for certification, factory space, packaging, and a million other pieces that are needed to bring a modern computing device to fruition. You need money.
We'll admit, Derek was being his typical sardonic self when he threw in the line, "You aren't getting it from Kickstarter, are you?"
That was a week after Kickstarter's biggest project to date - kooky game Double Fine Adventure had raked in $3.3 million over the course of a month from more than 87,000 backers. For those not familiar with Kickstarter, here's a crash course: Kickstarter allows enterprising entrepreneurs to publish a product proposal on the site and collect pledges from potential customers. They have to set a pledge goal and deadline, and backers aren't committed until both the deadline has passed and the project has reached its goal. For Double Fine Adventure, the developers were looking for $400,000 in pledges to get their game up off the ground. They got eight times that amount.
Kickstarter projects have been growing in scope and value for the past several months. Double Fine easily surpassed the previous Kickstarter record, set a month earlier by $1.5 million in pledges for the Elevation Dock for iPhone. Fast forward another month to today, and Double Fine's record is a speck in the dust-filled rear-view mirror of the Pebble: E-Paper Watch. This project has been on Kickstarter for eight days at press time and has already amassed more than $5.3 million in funding from 36,000 backers. Pebble is destined to be a customizable smart watch that can connect over Bluetooth to iPhone and Android smartphones. Of course, we want this to work with webOS too, but the success so far of Pebble's funding drive (at this pace, they're on track to hit $25 million in funding by the end their funding drive) got us wandering about the potential for webOS on Kickstarter.
HP's doing the heavy lifting with the OS, but the hardware is another question. They may, or may not, make webOS tablets - we're really lacking in a firm commitment, and 2013 is a long ways off. So, could a Kickstarter-funded webOS device be a reality?
It's possible, but just as with going it alone, there are a lot of hurdles to overcome. There are a lot of projects on Kickstarter, and most never reach their funding goals. The successful ones all have something in common: they can demonstrate a working product that people will want. Double Fine has been making games for years now, so their expertise was already established for Adventure. The group proposing the Pebble watch is the same team that built the BlackBerry inPulse Smartwatch - they know what they're doing, because they've done this before. Even the Elevation Dock was able to show a working prototype and the manufacturing process. All of these were presented in a high-quality video presentation that lays out everything potential backers need to know.
Kickstarter backers generally are fed into the site from outside sources - the iPhone community flooded Kickstarter with iPhone owners dissatisfied with the quality of the current crop of iPhone docks. The outside sources take notice because the project is compelling - who wouldn't want a smart watch that you can to control music on your phone, read texts, and see who's calling, all without taking your phone out of your pocket?
Kickstarter needs a working product to demonstrate before any mass of people are going to contribute funds. The Pebble watch is the most complicated Kickstarter project to date - it's not simple stuff to cram a vibrator, accelerometer, ARM chip, e-ink screen, Bluetooth, and seven-day battery life into a moderately-chunky watch body. A tablet of smartphone would be even more audacious, requiring the engineers and designers beforehand to build a functional demonstration-worthy prototype good enough to convince thousands and thousands of people to hand over their hard-earned cash.
The thing with projects like the Elevation Dock and Pebble is that they are tackling an area where nobody has been particularly successful. Most iPhone docks suck, even Apple's. There hasn't been a single enduringly successful smartwatch in ever. Smartphones and tablets, those are a different beast with multiple powerful and entrenched players. That's not to say that the Apples and Samsungs of the world would set out to crush a crowd-funded webOS device (they wouldn't feel threatened) - we mean that there's already a consumer knowledge base to overcome. Customers know about iPads and Droids, they know what to expect from a smartphone or tablet, and judging by the tens of millions of devices sold by Apple, HTC, Samsung, Motorola, and all the rest every quarter, we'd say they're generally satisfied with what they've been offered.
A webOS Kickstarter project would have to rely on the same drive that helped kick-start (ha) Double Fine Adventure: a motivated fanbase that can draw attention and additional backers. The difference with webOS, though, is that Double Fine never disappointed their previous users, they never pulled the rug out the way it was from under webOS. There are plenty of former webOS users out there, but they've all moved on, burned by a lack of updates or shoddy hardware or merely tired of looking from the outside in as the rest of the smartphone world passed on by. They may not be bitter, but they're also not necessarily chomping at the bit to jump back in either. Especially with an unproven device maker.
But if you just so happen to have the engineers and designers and tools to build your own tablet, then have at it. Kickstarter awaits.