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