Palm's decisions doomed WebOS

Insiders at the maker of expensive printer ink HP are starting to crawl out of the woodwork to explain why the TouchPad and WebOS went belly up during 2011.

The TouchPad was tipped to be the iPad Killer but was the year’s biggest flop and was killed after seven weeks in the shops.

But according to the people who created the tablets core software, the whole thing was dead in the water long before the product was released.

WebOS was more flexible and open than Apple’s tightly controlled iOS software, and prettier than Android. It had been bought from Palm as part of the $1.2 billion take over which Mark Hurd organised when he was not trying to recruit for his harem of women.

But WebOS was not as well built as HP and Palm had hoped. While Palm was ahead of its time in trying to build a phone software platform using Web technology it couldn’t actually pull it off.

Paul Mercer, former senior director of software at Palm, who oversaw the interface design of WebOS told the New York Times that the technology was not available.

Of course it being a report by the New York Times, which acts as Apple’s unpaid press office, the quote is seen as proof that no one will ever beat Apple and everyone else smells of Nintendo, but actually it shows how much Palm was talking up its WebOS.

The problem was that Palm hoped that when it created the WebOS for the Pre smartphone, developers would sign up in droves.

After some internal debate, the company chose to have WebOS rely on WebKit, which was an open-source software engine used by browsers to display Web pages. But Mercer said this was a mistake because it made applications run like an asthmatic ant with a heavy load of shopping.

Another member of the WebOS app development team said Palm could not get the enthusiasm and loyalty of outside programmers. There were neither the right leaders nor the right engineers to do the job, he said. Palm developed WebOS in nine months, and took some shortcuts.

Some former employees blame Jon Rubinstein, who was Palm’s chief executive, saying he failed to steer WebOS in the right direction. As a hardware expect he just did not understand how to build an OS and it was his daft idea to rely on WebKit. Rubinstein is still at HP.

While the Pre had good reviews and initially sold well, it became clear the phone was too slow. There were also complaints about the phone spontaneously restarting itself or freezing up.

Palm underestimated how many people it would need to make improvements, the former employee said.

Palm was bought by HP which hoped to use WebOS to accelerate its smartphone and tablet efforts, but suddenly the Palm staff started to leave. Crucial was the exit of Matias Duarte, vice president of human interface and user experience for WebOS. He was Mr WebOS and when he left, “the vacuum was just palpable”. We guess the dustpan and brush needed counselling too.

With Hurd’s exit and Léo Apotheker in to replace him, HP spent more on WebOS investments. Apotheker claimed WebOS would expand to more devices, including PCs and printers.

The thought was that with HP money and expertise, it could make the WebOS go properly and in lots of different areas. There were layers of vice presidents, hundreds of engineers bought in to develop the TouchPad. But that miffed the developers of WebOS who did not like the way they came in and stuck HP’s vision of putting WebOS on all hardware.

Not only was the software not up to that, it could not really cope with phones and tablets either.  Mercer thinks that WebKit left WebOS underpowered relative to Apple. WebKit was still not ready for prime time, because the Web cannot deliver what it needs yet.