webOS 2 and the hard call | webOS Nation

webOS 2 and the hard call

by Dieter Bohn Mon, 21 Feb 2011 3:53 pm EST

Above, you're looking at a photo of the two biggest product cancellations in Palm's history: The Foleo and webOS 2 for the original Palm Pre on Sprint. In both cases, the company made the hard call to cancel an announced product in favor of focusing their efforts on future products. In both cases (though obviously more with the OTA Update), they have incurred the ire of faithful users who have stuck with them on a rapidly aging platform. In both cases they were essentially guilty of overstretching and found themselves unable to execute on announced plans.

In both cases, they probably made the right call for the company even though it put current users in a lurch. Read on for what I believe was behind the decision to cancel webOS 2 for older devices.

No lie: plans change

One of the accusations that has been lobbed at Palm is that they "lied" when they promised that webOS 2.0 would be released to all existing devices. I can tell you flat-out that it not the case. I'm the one they told it to and who reported the story in November. In no uncertain terms: that was the plan at the time according to the several Palm reps I spoke to.

In fact, that was the plan that Palm (now HP) employees were talking about on February 9th at the Think Beyond event, just hours before Jon Rubinstein made an about-face and said that devices older than the Pre 2 wouldn't be getting the update. The plan was: depending on carrier approval, HP would be releasing webOS 2.x updates to "legacy" (their phrasing) devices via a download to your computer instead of Over-The-Air. For other users, there would be an alternate way to "make things right."

We also know the original plan was to release this update because, as you can see evidenced above, webOS 2.0 was released in a private beta (which, yes, leaked out) and was being actively tested. More on that below. For now I mention it here simply as one last piece of evidence. No lie: plans change.

Why was webOS 2.x for 'legacy' devices cancelled?

There are two different stories that I have heard from HP employees. Both have the ring of truth and so truthfully I believe both of them.

Reason 1: Over-the-Air issues. The original story we heard on February 9th was that a webOS Doctor download was possible for these devices, so the real announcement was that OTA updates wouldn't happen. The reasoning is that OTA works so differently in webOS 2.x and beyond compared to how it worked in 1.x that HP would need to achieve two fairly daunting tasks: maintain two significant OTA structures (for 1.x and 2.x) and find a way to manage devices making the transition from one structure to the other.

Both are significant challenges. In fact, we've already seen on OTA update that introduced a major bug related to saving games - a bug that didn't exist if you updated via the webOS Doctor. One presumes that the number and depth of such bugs for a major OS update like 1.x to 2.x would be several orders of magnitude larger.

Reason 2: Can the hardware handle webOS 2.x? This one is less clear. As above, we do know that the Palm Pre 'minus' on Sprint has run webOS 2.x because it was being beta tested. How does this beta run? Not terribly, but perhaps not up to HP's or carrier's standards. Was it fully optimized? No idea. Does Flash run? Yes, but poorly. Frankly I don't want to get into it too much because it's beta and not ready and, as you now know, likely not even going to be released (and no, we are not going to distribute the leaked beta. Ever. To anybody).

HP did tell us that there was some concern that they wouldn't be able to achieve the proper experience on these older devices. My sense is that webOS 2.x could run on "legacy" hardware if HP spent quite a bit of time optimizing it for lower RAM constraints, slower processor speeds, and the particular radios and boards found on these devices.

So much for HP Scale?

My hunch is that first HP looked at the effort necessary to support OTA and decided that their time was better spent building out the OTA infrastructure for the future. That infrastructure likely includes significant database updates (like CouchDB), support for having a single profile on multiple devices, and perhaps (fingers crossed) the beginning of real music sync services tied to your own collection via Melodeo.

With OTA off the table, what about supporting a downloadable update? That seemed to have been the original plan until recently. Again, my hunch is that it was again a question of resources: should HP spend time optimizing webOS 2.x for older devices or would customers be better served by having new devices hit the market faster? They decided on the latter.

In other words: the Palm Global Business Unit (GBU) still has limited resources and had to make a choice between continuing to update current devices or moving forward toward the brighter future. They're choosing the future. That same choice is also apparent to developers, who are currently in a limbo world where their available SDK will work on phones but not the TouchPad and it's clear that a year from now HP will want them to be using the new Enyo-based SDK.

So we come to the natural next question: what about all that "HP Scale" and "HP Resources" that has been hyped up since the merger? Two thoughts:

First, you can only bake a cake so quickly no matter how many bakers you have in the kitchen. It doesn't matter how much cash or resources you have to throw at it. These things take time and there's one clock that matters more than any other: the clock counting down releasing new products to market.

Secondly, to extend the metaphor, many of the engineers at HP are still cooks and not yet bakers. A lot of people left Palm after the HP acquisition and whether it was just normal post-merger attrition or a mass exodus, the bottom line is for the past few months there have been fewer real expert webOS engineers in the Palm GBU. Although a bunch of HP engineers came over to the Palm GBU, getting trained up and familiar enough with webOS to be able to handle something as complex as a major OS update takes a lot of time. HP decided that time is better spent working on what's next.

Tradeoffs: Then, Now and Next

So I think HP simply had to make the call: work on getting new products to market as quickly as possible or work on the two difficult engineering tasks required to release an OS update to an ever dwindling core of webOS users - many of whom are likely to be upgrading their phones in the near future anyway. Then: they genuinely were making the effort. Now: they cancelled it to focus on what's next.

What's next is new devices coming to market with either a completely rewritten OS (TouchPad) or a new version of webOS 2.x that's significantly different under the hood than 1.x. We already know that at least some Enyo support needs to be built into webOS 2.x for phones - the video calling feature, for example, is written in Enyo. Presumably HP would like to get as many apps as possible on that new framework before release.

Speaking of Enyo - as polished as webOS 3 looks on the TouchPad now, from what I can tell there is still significant work to be done. From the demos I have seen, the core OS is really solid. However, we have only seen extensive demos of a few apps: the web browser, email, calendar, and photos. Many more core apps need to be rewritten in Enyo - from Music to Tasks to Maps (oh god, please let us see improved Maps). From where I'm sitting, HP isn't releasing these products until Spring and Summer not because they're still working on the hardware., but because they're working on the software.

Truth: which would you rather have?

This is the choice that HP was faced with so far as I see it:

Either delay the Pre 3 and TouchPad out past what it already a distressingly long launch window (and perhaps even the Veer as well) to continue working on webOS 2.x for current phones or ensure that all three hit the market on time, bug free, and with awesome software. Scale or no, my strong hunch is that doing both with their current infrastructure and resources was simply not an option.

Am I happy that HP cancelled the update? No. It sucks for current users who have stuck with webOS through some very tough times. Would I have made the same decision were I in their shoes? Very probably, yes.

To the users who are unhappy with this decision, be honest with yourself: how likely are you to buy a new phone in the coming year? Wouldn't you like HP to ensure that you have a webOS phone available to buy?

A new promise: Make things right

Finally, let me point out once again that webOS users are some of the most loyal and amongst the most fanatical around. It is due in no small part to your passion, your loyalty, and even homebrew that HP has a userbase at all right now. If any company should feel grateful for (or perhaps even obligated to) a dedicated and engaged userbase, it's probably Palm / HP.

From their statements both private and publicly on their official blog, they get that. There's reason to hope that although they had to make the tough call to cancel webOS 2.x for "legacy" devices, they really do intend to find a way to "make things right" in a way that should ease our update discontent. While many users will forgive changing plans on the webOS 2 update, very few would be able to get over a half-measure way to make things right.