Tech corner: WebOS is not dead!

Yes yes, the evidence points to the contrary. I know, having the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company currently sitting at the top of the consumer computing industry declare that a very valuable asset they just bought out for $1.2 billion the other day is now going to be trashed is pretty much the nail in the coffin for most people. I, on the other hand, haven’t been able to snag an HP Touchpad for $100 and firmly believe that WeboS will stay alive and HP is just pulling your socks.

Let’s rewind to the beginning in April last year, when HP had just bought the defunct Palm OS and announced that they would be re-entering the mobile and tablet market with a new product line that would knock the socks off iOS and the then-unfinished Windows Phone. HP bought out Treo and Handspring for pocket change, and everyone everywhere began to expect good things. Fast-forward to MWC 2011 in February, the ill-fated month for Nokia’s Symbian OS, and WebOS shone like a brightly polished gem. The UI was well-thought out, worked smoothly, showed promise and above all enabled users to switch comfortably between the Touchpad and HP’s companion devices, the HP Veer and Pre 3, both stunning handsets in their own right and the Veer in particular a definate inspiration for the HTC Cha Cha.

But now I’m completely stumped. HP recently announced that it was shutting down ALL mobile WebOS development and would abandon future releases of devices showcasing the powerful mobile OS. This means that their tablet and smartphone solutions will be ceased until further notice, but the software will very likely be used in their laptops, desktops, servers, and anything carrying the HP logo. The similarities between WebOS and the original design aspirations for Symbian are uncanny – both are powerful Linux derivatives, able to work in any form factor and usage scenario.

While many are lamenting this fact, it may be that HP is only temporarily stopping development into the mobile sector to first complete a universal change to WebOS for their other products – having a copy of WebOS on all their consumer devices ready for tethering with a mobile WebOS would just make the most sense. Running to a server and administering it using NFC and SSH on your WebOS smartphone in order to prevent a virus outbreak or something equally geeky and fun would have allowed HP to break into new markets in their Enterprise segments. In particular, with the new customers gained through their recent acquisituion of Autonomy, this would have been triply useful for all those servers to administer for their new clients.

But no. Leo Apotheker goes and pulls an Elop without even a “burning platform” metaphor at hand. WebOS could have easily propelled HP into the spotlight and brought them market share in the teeming thousands of users hungry for something different. It would have made their Slate so much more enticing, and would have provided a rich ecosystem of apps, given HP’s developmental resources and the huge developer interest in WebOS. The patents now held by HP would have protected the platform from Apple’s annoying trolling joyride with ease. They could, quite easily, have created a Blackberry-style internet service for their users, and the strong ties with Microsoft would have meant tighter and possibly better enterprise integration.

It was all there, in their hands. And now they’ve thrown it away.


Or have they? All across America the Touchpad devices and some Veer handsets flew off the shelves with the announcement of a fire sale of all devices starting from $100. The Touchpad 32GB was on Amazon’s top seller list for a straight two days. Its outsold iPads and Android tablets, and buyers are satisfied with their purchases. In light of the absolute shocker that is the way these devices have flown into the hands of buyers, it seems HP are trying to make two points here:

One: iOS and Android isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. Sure, there is a huge market for people drawn to those platforms for whatever reason, and I applaud their purchases of those well-designed devices. However, it sems that many users in America are looking for something new and different, and WebOS seems to have appealed to their tastes. I’ve seen posts online of people actually dunking their iPads for a 32GB HP Touchpad, and not even Android has received that kind of love yet. WebOS, it seems, is exactly what many people need. It may not be the best alternative, but its a step in the right direction.

Two: HP has undercut everyone here. $100 for a fully-functional iPad and Android Honeycomb alternative is practically stealing market share from these companies like a bully steals candy from a baby. The market has always been ripe for tablets, but at a much lower price point than the current asking price of $550 (roughly R5500) for the 16GB iPad 2 with Wi-Fi. Lets face it, not even Android tablets have been that cheap and the various manufacturers are targeting the wrong market – the high-end has been sucked up by Apple, don’t try beating them at their own game. Lower-priced devices might not bring with it the margins we’ve come to see from Apple’s devices, but the larger potential market is far more enticing. Completely selling out a product like this is something we don’t see every day, and here HP has done it right.

And here’s my clincher, where I think the nay-sayers ought to sit up and listen carefully:

Rebirth, and all that. There's somewhere where this Easter metaphor works, damn it.

I predict that HP will quietly continue the firesale by slowly slipping more devices into more stores, stealing market share right from under Apple’s nose. And when you least expect it, they’ll make an “astounding” comeback, armed to the teeth with users who have already seen and tasted what the platform is capable of in conjunction with HP’s other comsumer devices. Sure, this might take a while to achieve, but I believe it can be done. We’re already seeing something similar with Nokia’s latest updates to Symbian S^3 with Anna and Belle – both have brought S^3 up to date with the latest advancements made by iOS, Wp7 and Android, and still kick ass.

Honestly, what better way to advertise your product than announce its imminemt, unexplainable death and then bring it back kicking and screaming from the grave?

Edit: 16/09/2011 – The fire sale continues in secret. Was I wrong after all?