webOS "deeply flawed"? Point fingers at the plan, not the code | webOS Nation
 
 

webOS "deeply flawed"? Point fingers at the plan, not the code 179

by Derek Kessler Wed, 04 Jan 2012 10:51 pm EST

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.

On occasion, though, things don’t go peachy. This is the story of where Palm went wrong.

First and most obvious was the quality of the hardware. It’s not the processor or RAM or the screen I’m talking about here. It’s the shell, the slider, the physical device with which a user interacts. Palm took too many shortcuts here and ended up with a device that felt cheap and after a few weeks of use started to look cheap too. The original Pre was neither well built nor durable and it took Palm until the Pre 2 to really get the slider design right (the Pixi, while a cheap device, was much better built with the lack of a slider).

The root of the hardware problem was the slider. Palm opted, nay forced, a curved slider design. Why? Jon Rubinstein said it was so that when opened the Pre better matched the natural curve of your face. This would have made sense if the microphone were on the bottom half of the slider, putting it closer to one’s mouth when opened, but it was on the top half, and thus always in the same position relative to your mouth whether opened or closed. It’s worth noting that with the Pre3 the microphone was finally moved to the keyboard side of the slider, finally validating the argument, but the Pre3 was built on an all-new chassis that did away with all the designed-in flaws of the original Pre.

With the Pre 2 they finally got the original slider system tuned well enough to be solid and reliable, but by then it was too late. Palm had developed a reputation of having less-than-reliable hardware, and in a land where you’re stuck with the same device for two years thanks to a carrier contact, that’s the kiss of death. Had they managed to sort out the quality control issues earlier (say, before launch), things may have turned out differently.

The second problem was one that was almost unavoidable: Sprint. Palm surely would have wanted on a bigger carrier Verizon or AT&T with the Pre, but Big Red was already in the early phases of courting Motorola for the original Droid and AT&T was sitting pretty with their iPhone exclusive. That left Sprint and T-Mobile, and of the two Sprint was the better choice.

Sprint also was looking for somebody like Palm. They desperately wanted an iPhone competitor, something exclusively theirs that they use to combat the growing juggernaut of AT&T. It didn’t help that Sprint was smarting from having taken a pass on the iPhone when Apple was still shopping it around (Verizon was in the same boat) and desperate to make up for that faux pas with the shareholders.

But Sprint lacked the deep pockets of AT&T and the dedication of AT&T and Verizon. They weren’t prepared for a real flagship device – if you’ll recall, their kneejerk reaction to the iPhone was the pitiful Samsung Instinct. Sprint still didn’t understand the modern smartphone and wasn’t capable of working with Palm to ensure that the Pre lived up to their expectations.

Going with distant third place carrier Sprint exclusively also hobbled Palm. Apple and AT&T had the advantage of an existing customer knowledge of Apple products that led to customers switching to the iPhone, but by-and-large people didn’t leave Sprint and Verizon en masse for AT&T. There’s that two year contract rearing its ugly head again.

Sprint’s smaller customer base and apparent inability to train store staff came back to bite Palm in the rear. I personally can recount the story of taking my loose battery connection Pre in to the Sprint store to get a replacement and having a salesperson inform me oh-so-matter-of-factly that the Pre was supposed to turn off when the slider is closed. One: No it’s not. Two: It’s also not supposed to crash and burn when the slider is closed. The relationship between Sprint and webOS is strained after all of this, to say the least.

The failed sales training ties back to the third, and probably the biggest, problem that faced webOS. It’s called the TiVo problem.

By now we all know what TiVo is and why we would want one. In fact, even the cable and satellite companies figured it out and spat out poor excuses of a substitute that became known as the ubiquitous DVR. The TiVo problem is this: For the first several years it TiVo had great difficulty explaining what exactly their product did and why you should want one over a standard VCR or DVD recorder. It records shows – like your VCR, but on a hard drive. It does it on a schedule – like your DVD recorder, but this one is web connected and has a channel guide. You can watch something while recording something else – like your VCR, if you wired it up correctly. The TiVo does all of this with a pleasant remote controlled on-screen interface and also finds other shows you might like based on the things you’ve told it to record. Now we’re getting somewhere. For a long time the TiVo couldn’t be summed up in an easy-to-comprehend sentence. “Hard drive-based digital video recorder with recommendation engine” isn’t easy to parse. Apple meanwhile had a simple message for the iPhone: The internet, your music, and your movies. In your pocket. Later: Thousands of apps. In your pocket.

Palm’s message for webOS was a bit more complicated than that. Sure, the message encompassed the breadth of the iPhone’s message, but that wasn’t the selling point for webOS. Nor was the web-based operating system. The selling points were multitasking and Synergy, neither of which Palm seemed to be able to adequately explain to the general public.

One of the original iPhone ads could be used to show exactly the problem Palm aimed to solve with the multitasking prowess of webOS. It starts off on the iPhone home screen. The narrator launches email, goes back to the home screen, launches the stocks app, goes back to the home screen, and launches the web browser. One app at a time. webOS’ multitasking cards get around that, but it’s difficult to explain to an unknowing public in a thirty second spot.

The same TiVo problem applies to Synergy. It’s a simple problem: your contacts, calendars, and email are spread all across the internet. Synergy brings them all together into one spot, seamlessly matching up your contacts across sources without intermingling the data back on the servers. Once it’s explained to you it makes perfect sense and is a great feature, but as a selling point it’s not easy to pitch.

webOS had and still has a TiVo problem. Those that know it and understand it love it, can’t get enough of it, and turn into unpaid yet enthusiastic product ambassadors. That’s that don’t yet understand it can’t fathom why somebody would elect to use it over the more established competition that’s simple on the surface.

The biggest problem with Palm’s TiVo problem was and has been the advertising. Apple knew that the iPhone’s all touchscreen interface would be foreign to many, so early commercials focused on things as simple as “Here’s how you turn it on”, and to great effect. Potential customers and everybody else was familiarized through their television sets with the iPhone before they even had a chance to touch one.

Palm, on the other hand, chose to launch the Pre advertising campaign with this cool but esoteric ad featuring orange-cloaked dancers alluding to the capabilities of webOS while a pale woman sat on a rock in the middle of them with the phone. If you knew webOS you could see what the ad was about. If you didn’t know webOS, i.e. if you were the vast majority of the people watching the ad, you were left confused and utterly uninformed. The pattern has continued through all of the advertising for webOS, even up to the better but still not great ads put out by HP for the Veer and TouchPad. While these ads actually showed the devices in action, they still fail to explain how it is that the TouchPad and webOS is a better choice than an iPad or Android tablet.

It doesn’t help that Palm was so poor at pitching the user-facing advantages of webOS that first the BlackBerry PlayBook and now Windows Phone and Android have stolen the multitasking scheme and practically every platform has emulated Synergy in one shape or form and nobody knows that Palm came up with it first.

The TiVo problem isn’t a huge problem for TiVo. A company like TiVo can survive with a small but dedicated customer base willing to pay for their misunderstood products. A phone manufacturer, however, needs the support of a carrier as well as the customer base – it’s nigh impossible to successfully release a phone without having a carrier on board enthusiastically promoting the product.

The problem with webOS was not the software. Software can be fixed. Bugs can be patched, features added and improved, and things made generally better. Palm even made it easy to do it over-the-air in a manner that Apple is just now getting around to emulating.

The problem with webOS was the plan. The flaw was with shipping sloppy hardware. The problem was not even attempting to explain to customers what your product does. The flaw was launching on a third-rate carrier so desperate for an iPhone competitor that they allowed the first two to happen. The plan was broken.

Like I said, software can be improved. In fact, webOS was improved. It took a few months, but paid app support eventually arrived. Seven months after the Pre and webOS were released on Sprint, webOS 1.4.5 with PDK native code support (think in-depth gaming) and the upgraded Palm Pre Plus launched on Verizon. But the plan was still broken on the messaging front.

HP struggled with the message as well. We can’t deny that HP was disappointed by the sales of the TouchPad, but to say that pulling the plug after 49 days on the market is indicative of the failure of webOS is to be as short-sighted as HP was under the reign of CEO Leo Apotheker. He gave webOS a chance, yes, but a pathetically brief chance at that, falling on the excuse that it would take an investment of billions of dollars to get webOS to where it could be truly successful. Of course it would, what do you think Apple, Google, and Microsoft have been doing, pinching their pennies? No, they invest what they need to and then some to make the product they and customers want.

The failing of webOS to this point has not been that of the software. With the little bit of clean-up in webOS 3.0.2 and 3.0.4 the TouchPad stands, at least on an operating system level, toe-to-toe with iOS and Android (application support is, of course, another story). The failing has been with message, dollars, and patience.

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179 Comments

"It's superior in ways that appear not to matter to the general marketplace."

Very well said.

I wish the folks that have been coming around lately to harass the still-webOS-faithful understood the flipside of that point.

For most folks still hanging on, it's largely because the ways webOS is superior still outweigh the benefits of the other platforms. We're aware things aren't perfect, but they're still what we prefer, ok?

My wife has a iphone4 and I have an pre3 now. I am not a programmer, but I do think it's comparable in OS level. Touchscreen response on webos is not as consistent as iphone/ipad. That's my biggest complain. Not sure if that's fixable.

The true is that if they got everything right, it still will be very difficult to overtake apple and android because their timing and financial resource.

Long as it was, I liked the article. I read the original piece and had the same thoughts.... software was the problem? **** no. Hardware and a myriad other things were the primary problem.

Brillian article Derek - best I've ever read about the rise and fall of webOS. I'm still astounded by how ahead of its time webOS truly was (still is). For instance, my wife bought an iPhone 4S last week to replace her aged Pre (cracked screen, oreo slider, broken usb port) and was very frustrated that all her Facebook contacts did not just automatically download and sync up. There is a sync option, but only with contacts that already exist on the phone. She misses the "swipe to delete" in the email program and the patches I installed to customize the app launcher.

I lay awake at night and think about what could have been if Palm had gotten the hardware right from day one...

The "swipe to delete" works in iOS. You swipe the mail to the right and a delete button appears.

A great article and still relevant in the UK. The biggest fail in the UK was coming 6 months later than the US. Also being with the same carrier as the iPhone, O2 employees didn't need to promote the Pre when they could sell the iPhone easier.

IBM's OS2 was a far superior OS on desktops back in the day, but failed. Even though it was a fully multi-tasking OS in the days of DOS and Windows 3.0.

Sure it had MS up against it, but its biggest obstacle was lack of public consciousness.

Apple phones and tablets are successful because they have become part of the vernacular in the same way that 'hoover' did with vacuum cleaners and Google has with search.

Its partly to do with advertising, but largely to do with being in the right place at the right time.

webOS was late and the new technologies such as Synergy and proper multi-tasking weren't compelling enough to make the splash necessary.

I have a Pre3 (previously an iPhone 4) which does everything that I need to it do and more.I'm happy to continue and look forward to webOS popping up on my toaster or fridge door some time soon.

I'm always amused by the trolls complaining about boot time. How often do you reboot your phone?

How often do you reboot your phone?

LOL. On webOS? I needed to reboot often enough to justify using Preware to intall a patch that would automatically reboot my Pre at 3AM every morning. Even with the fake stability granted by that patch, I still had to reboot at times during normal use (for example, if I couldn't get a GPS lock or my camera wouldn't load correctly, or...you get the point).

Every single mobile device I've used over the years booted much faster than my Pre yet the Pre is the one that needed to be rebooted the most.

Ironic.

I don't know how often you need to reboot your phone but, I'm using a Pre- w/ 1.4.5 since 2009 and I had to reboot ... hard to say, maybe 10 times? Updates inclusive. I don't have cracks on the screen and the usb cap is still there (by now :-p).
And the TP I'm writing on, did need a reboot only after update.
The everyday usability is ok. Could it be improved! Of course it could, many task have been named in this thread.

I think, the idea behind WebOS is worth to be further developed.
The hardware will come. W/ the quadcore the small difference will become irrelewant.

Establish a "Mr.Linus"-team to keep the core clean and let the community go on. The open sorce community will never have the money of google or the charisma of Mr.Jobs (what a prodigy he was!), but ... Go on!

Yeah, I don't get the reboot anecdotes either. Sounds common enough, but I've never had to reboot but maybe once or twice a month, and that's usually because I'm tinkering around.

Hardware and software unity BS killed webOS. Crappy quality phones and questionable form factors, combined with undeveloped OS based on good ideas but lacking execution made marriage from inferno. If iPhone is example why such union is good, webOS devices can be used as counter argument why small company shouldn't ever take such approach. Instead concentrating on software development, Palm and HP wasted great, but still limited effort and money on hardware and software.

hmmz...this is a nice article, but obviously not ONE person knows everything. and whats with this huge array of comments bashing WebOS? i agree that this website's purpose is for those who LOVE webos! if you dont like it, then dont post. not to say you are not welcome...how do i say this...just dont say how wrong we are. it IS subjective, and therefore people should not only say that it is their OPINION that webos is better, but those that say it ISNT is mere CONJECTURE! it is your OPINION that webos is worse. the purpose of this site is to accommodate those who think it is better. i have a pre3, and love it. it has it's flaws, but for all my intents and purposes it is great. i have some wishes (bigger screen, more responsive touch-sensitivity, etc.) but i know itll get better later. just stop bashing and trolling ok?

The point isn't whether WebOS is "better" or "worse". That's a childish, reductive way at looking at things.

The point is that if we're to have an honest postmortem on what went wrong and whether it still has a chance as anything but a hobbyist OS run by a few thousand devices, then NOTHING can be off the table. You can't write an article saying "It's not the OS!", then spend the entire article addressing everything but the OS itself.

If you can't look at something you love critically and instead dismiss all contrary thoughts as that of "bashers" "haters" and "trolls", then your outlook is pretty much identical to a 15-year old girl in a Twitter feud. We grownups prefer to have somewhat more substantive dialogue....

sorry...but as a explanation: I was referring to the first bulk...and not most of the comments. But I did not intend all comments contrary to be trollish but only some. I'm sorry...I'm not a good communicator...anyway, I meant that whether webOS is better or worse is a preference, it isn't best for all. It is for some. I said there are problems with webOS too, but for me it works great. Sorry, I really do suck at communicating...

I think it was a good article by Derek and valid points have been raised in the comments. We webOS faithful (I got a Pre- the 1st week it came out in June 2009) are always hoping for that big software update, new phone, new tablet, etc. that is always just out of reach. With webOS devices/software, it is as if we are horny school boys always waiting for that babe to show up to class. We keep believing that she will show up even though she has told us off, moved away, and has a new boyfriend...but she might come back so we can take her out to a movie and show up all of the other losers around us. We start to look at pictures of her and realize she isn't as great looking as we originally thought but with some cosmetic work and a boob job, she will be good to go. That is how I feel about webOS...hope you enjoyed it!

Heh. Regarding aping of Synergy: A friend of mine whom got a Pixi as her first smartphone when it came out (per my suggestion and after seeing my Pre) turned Android this week.

I asked how she liked the contact integration on it, genuinely curious. I was surprised when she said she really didn't like the Facebook integration in particular. It crashed her phone and when it didn't, it wouldn't let her "edit" Facebook contacts. She was confused.

It seems she never totally understood before how Synergy worked on webOS or that others didn't do the same thing. But she knows it "just worked," and that now this didn't.

Oh, and asking why she went Android? Partly to change to a more affordable carrier and partly wanting more apps with future support.

Seeing just that one user experience has me leaning to your side on this one, Derek. Here's a novice user who gave it a chance. And leaving had little to do with the software.

Facebook sued Google to remove their Facebook sync. Use the Friendcaster app and it will sync nicely.

But Facebook will still not let you edit their contacts except through a Facebook app. Facebook also refuses to allow Apple this access.

The rumored reason why Facebook never went after webOS is that Android sells 700,000 devices a day. Every few days equals all webOS devices ever sold, not enough webOS to litigate.

The upside is that she gets Groups now. So she can see just her regular contacts, Facebook, work, etc. Click the Getting Started button at http://forums.androidcentral.com/ for a walk-though.

Thanks for the 411. Android's next on the list depending how I feel when the 2 dies, so appreciate the diplomacy!

And yeah, I get the situation with Facebook. I just thought it was telling that she never even noticed.

As you know, in Synergy if you tried to edit something like a FB contact it would simply add a new Google or Profile entry instead but link them, without ever saying a word. (guess that can possibly cause a bit of a mess later, but still slick)

Derek,
I think you should stop trying to figure out what happen or how it happen. You should spend more of your valuable time thinking how you can help WebOS and the community. What has happen in the past is done, forget about it and let's try to help build up the WebOS community now. We are talking about the future of WebOS. Think of way on how you can convince developers to write webos apps so that webos could be and will be bigger than the android once the source code has been released.

That's never gonna happen because to help webos you have to first be willing to face it's flaws. Almost nobody is willing to do that. The article Derek is responding to is precicely identifying a problem of webkit. But people that don't want anything bad said about their religion webos refuse to address that problem. And if you cant address the problem you can't fix it. And i like Derek but he seems unwilling to face the problem. Something about a river in Egypt.

That's because it's not about fixing anything. It's about getting web clicks. Articles like this do just that. Fire up the base; get'em clicking. It's that or a very long "vacation".

w/ out webclicks there would be no article at all. Well maybe there would be, but it would come from webosnation.blogspot.com and probably from someone who has no writing/editing skills.

I'm not arguing against web clicks. But web clicks no matter the cost often incurs unwanted "costs". If you take an honest look, you'll see it's been happening for a while. Sad.

Yep, the only reason this site is still here is to sell things in the store and click on ads. That's basically the original purpose of these SPE sites.

I disagree with the argument you've chosen as a retort, Derek. To ignore the initial point of the article is a failure on your part as a community leader to answer the New York Times article entirely. It's not that you're wrong about any of the points about why webOS failed in Marketing and Positional respects, you're not. It's not that you're using good points that webOS missed that Android and iOS sailed right past. It's not that you've written a bad article.

But the point of the article was that design choices in the development of webOS created flaws in the software. Design choices that ALL PROGRAMMERS MAKE in development. That interpreted code isn't possible to use in the webOS Developer program (HTML/Javascript is nowhere in the same speed/control over hardware as C. It isn't meant to be. One positive tradeoff means that it's nearly impossible to damage the hardware and brick the phone over a badly written app.) That WebKit/HTML isn't ideal to use in Operating System user interface. (Yet Gnome 3 exists, which uses HTML and Javascript heavily in it's UI... so something tells me that's an argument in of itself.)

That's why 12 blogs/journalists bashed the dead horse in TechMeme, and every single one of those articles going on about how true the NYT article was is reinforcing the perception that webOS heading off to open source remains a JOKE (logically a cautionary tale) to iOS/Android developers looking to add more platforms to their repetoire."Let it be known that the artform of the Public Beating has never fallen out of style..." Christopher Buckley, Thank You For Smoking.

Design choices in Android and iOS that are detrimental to the user are also present in other mobile platforms. I'll keep it down to the big two and step off the soapbox:

ANDROID Design flaws: Let's ignore the obvious one for a second (fragmentation) and go into the code itself. Unlike webOS being licensed by Sun (now Oracle) to use Java, Android's Dalvik may prove to be a mistake. Google did a clean-room teardown of Java to make Dalvik, a Java copycat. Now they face litigation from Oracle that at the least makes the future of the platform on shaky ground. Damages looks to point to financial profiteering, but Oracle could seek a forced license of Dalvik that all of the sudden can make Android have a price tag to put into new devices in exchange for a lower settlement, despite Google's insistence that they will carry the trial all the way out to a verdict.

IOS Design flaws: Ignoring that it's Closed Source, one of the few developer programs out there that bites the hands that feed it, and Jailbreaking is discouraged to the point that users must reset their device every time an update from the Grey Fruit office comes over the air... it's security in SSL is non-existant in most apps (where any certificate, signed or unsigned is accepted from Development laziness) with in-app purchases opening the marketplace up to MITM attacks that Apple can't easily resolve. Or that user data on the device is a single root attempt away: no encryption is even attempted on user data on the device. Android and webOS has the same issue but by scale alone, wouldn't that be something Apple would even consider addressing? Nope, we'll add optional remote wipe service. (Do you ever really know if it worked or not? What if your thief is smart enough to disable radio on your device before you tell Apple to wipe it?)

Again, I respect the h*** out of you for championing a fan site for webOS after all that's happened and keeping positive about a platform that few are optimistic about these days (particularly the users of the current generation of devices). But while I know that no amount of writing will make a retort to that article appear in a larger audience than the readership of "WebOS is a deeply flawed" whatever... while it's true that in the end, sales are king in mobile development, and that even now webOS is a minority share that's chasing the heels of users in terms of subscribers in the wild now as SymbianOS in America and the original Windows Mobile 6 platform (okay, considering TouchPad, maybe we're doing a little better than that, but all three of us are on the decline), I feel that the argument you made above wasn't the strongest way to counter it.

According to tests done by webosfrance webos has become quite efficient over time.
http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=auto&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&i...

But what I can't understand is why I still can't buy apps when not in a approved country (in my case sweden). Add a Paypal possibility! Even though apps have growed over the years this must be a contributor to why it's not grown faster. The creators of apps want to get paid, and I want to pay!

So there goes the next "story" to be posted on this blog. Hopefully Derek and the gang can do a more detailed study because the charts in that post are a little...light.

Yes, I agree, there were execution problems around the Pre and Pre2 but how do you explain how awful the Touchpad is?

Decent hardware totally crippled by lame software which is buggy, laggy and unusable at times.

The Palm guys and subsequiently HP had years to get webOS working well and they still haven't done it - that's why it's now dead (and don't give me this **** about the TouchPad being the first version of webOS on a tablet, that shouldn't make a difference cause if it really is a web/css/js based OS the form factor is irrelevant - it should scale seamlessly).

Admit it, the folks at Palm / HP never had the talent to execute the successful delivery of anything based on webOS. If it was a Google / Apple product it would be flying by now..