As an old HP fan, the rebirth of WebOS is painful to watch. Palm, after missing the ‘‘App Phone’’ transition was effectiv ely taken over by an investor group led by Elevation Partners. They promptly installed Jon Rubinstein as CEO, banking on his successful Apple experience to breathe new life into Palm. He did: In June 2009, Palm 2.0 launched the Palm Pre smartphone based on a new and very promising platform called WebOS. For reasons still in doubt (imperfect hardware, Sprint as the chosen carrier partner, young software, a perceived lack of applications, unusual ads…) customers didn’t vote with their wallets. Palm 2.0 investors got tired and the company was sold to HP in April 2010 for $1.2B. (At the time, I predicted no one would pick it up…)
HP immediately positioned WebOS for a broader role: it would also run on devices such as the company’s printers, improving their UI. On the surface of things, a good idea. And buying Palm was a declaration of independence from Microsoft: HP would control its smartphone (and tablet) future.
Back in September 2010, addressing the “Apple Problem”, Todd Bradley, the senior exec in charge of HP’s Personal Systems Group, took pains to dismiss ideas of direct competition with Apple: “… emulating Apple is not part of our strategy…”
When HP’s WebOS tablet, the TouchPad, was finally announced on February 9th, comparisons with Apple and Android couldn’t be avoided. (YouTube video here.)
In a BBC interview, HP’s new CEO, Leo Apotheker, kept the Apple comparison alive: “I hope one day people will say ‘this is as cool as HP’, not ‘as cool as Apple’.”
This is a worthy goal, one with the potential to motivate the troops. In principle, it can be done: some call Apple the new Sony; others see Samsung as having taken Sony’s place.
But… Isn’t this type of goal better kept quiet, working and working until the market says you have dethroned the incumbent?
We now go back to last month’s D9 conference and its proven formula: captains of industry softly interviewed by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. The “softly” part is a bit misleading: these two journalists don’t do attack interviews, they might ask the occasional follow-up question, or let a pregnant pause signal BS detection and, on occasion, push the careless fabulist to dig deeper. But they mostly let their audience of industry insiders judge for themselves.
We, too, can do this.
For example, we can turn to Leo Apotheker’s on-stage performance at the conference. (See the video here.)
When asked about what took HP so long to come up with a tablet after Palm’s acquisition a year ago, the company’s CEO replied he wanted the TouchPad to be perfect when shipped. A friend sitting next to me in the audience turned and asked, sotto voce: ‘Why his he doing this to himself?’ And to his people, one might add. What is the benefit in setting up such a high bar?
Bill Walsh, the legendary football coach, used a better approach: before a game, he gave detailed praise to the adversary. Great quarterback, sharp throws, hard defense, and so on. If Bill’s team won, they did so against a worthy opponent. If they lost, well, this had been a hard fight against a clearly superior opponent. Safe and gracious.
Last week, after setting lofty expectations, HP launched its WebOS TouchPad.
None of the first reviews contained the word “perfect’’. Most praised WebOS features such as the Card UI, the Synergy integration of information sources and its unrestricted multitasking. But, too often, the praise was followed by criticism of poor execution.
Walt Mossberg, the Walt Street Journal “gadget guru” and arbiter of high-tech taste ended his detailed review saying: ‘I can’t recommend the TouchPad over the iPad 2’.
Gizmodo’s review is best summed up by its opening paragraph:
“I am so goddamned tired of the iPad. Which is why I was so excited for the TouchPad. And that’s why I feel so completely crushed right now.”
Last February, when the TouchPad was first announced, CNET UK gave it a very positive review:
“If you’ve been hankering for a credible alternative to Apple’s iPad, hanker no more. We’ve sat down with the HP TouchPad, a new contender to the tablet throne — and it is, for desperate want of a better word, amazeballs. It promises a host of advantages over the all-conquering iPad, including a dual-core CPU, no-nonsense media handling and, joy of all joys, Adobe Flash playback.”
This was then. Last week’s CNET’s review ends with this bottom line:
“The TouchPad would have made a great competitor for the original iPad, but its design, features, and speed put it behind today’s crop of tablet heavyweights.”
As for Flash performance, while Ars Technica gave the TouchPad a more “fair and balanced” hands-on, it nonetheless joined other review sites in noting flawed rendering:
“One big problem with browsing is Flash. Yes, it’s nice to avoid non-functional gray or black pages every time you visit a restaurant website, but we encountered far too many instances where some site’s Flashy goodness brought the entire TouchPad to its knees.”
(I just found out I’m not alone in pointing to the trouble with making promises of perfection. In a June 1st Market Watch interview (video here), Walt Mossberg opined the claim to a perfect-at-birth TouchPad “might come back to haunt Apotheker as HP tries to penetrate the market dominance of the iPad with the TouchPad.”)
This launched HP into damage control mode. First, a by-the-book response: The less-than-perfect features widely remarked upon by reviewers will be taken care Real Soon Now. According to Walt Mossberg’s TouchPad review, “H-P acknowledges most of these problems and says it is already working on a webOS update, to be delivered wirelessly in three to six weeks that will fix nearly all of them.”
But, wait a minute, if the bugs can be exterminated so quickly, why didn’t HP wait “three to six weeks” and execute the perfect launch promised by their CEO? Did Apotheker get to test the product himself and decide it met his standard for perfection, or did his staff tell him bedtime stories?
Then, Richard Kerris, the exec in charge of Developer Relations re-assures us: “We think the world of Apple and have the utmost respect for their products,” said Kerris. “It would be ignorant for us to say that we are going to take it [the market] away from Apple.”
Next, we’re told the TouchPad isn’t an iPad killer, but an “enterprise play”. By the same Richard Kerris: “We think there’s a better opportunity for us to go after the enterprise space and those consumers that use PCs.”
In the meantime, another HP exec, Eric Cador, claims his company’s TouchPad will become better than number one: “… in the tablet world we’re going to become better than number one. We call it number one plus.”
Jon Rubinstein comes to the rescue and compares the TouchPad’s teething problems to Apple’s early versions of OS X. In his memo to the troops, Ruby, as he is affectionately known, shows leadership and reminds everyone of Apple tribulations when rebuilding the Macintosh software foundation after Jobs came back to power. True.
But… Apple had a following HP lacks today. The adversary was Windows, great market power and not especially respected for its technical prowess. And today’s competitors are of two kinds, the huge iOS monolith and the even larger and proliferating Android.
In his D9 interview, Apotheker argues WebOS gives HP the ability to control better control its destiny by making both hardware and software like, you know, Apple. A few weeks later, we’re told HP is looking for WebOS licensing partners — thus opening itself to competing on price and features with its licensees, something Google, Apple and Microsoft have studiously avoided. (In the mid-nineties, Apple briefly tried to have it both ways. Profits plunged, Jobs came back and put an end to the bleeding.)
Unfortunately, I’m not done with the complicated positioning message.
Earlier this year, HP’s CEO made the claim WebOS would run on “100 million” devices. To quote the ZDNet article: “Although that 100 million figure sounds crazy it should be noted that HP shipped more than 52 million printers in 2010 and 64 million PCs. Tablets and smartphones are gravy.”
On PCs, as discussed in the March 13th Monday Note, the idea, an old one, is to have a “mini-OS” that’ll boot much faster than Windows so you can quickly check your webmail or your Facebook page. Printers would get better a nicer touch-UI. All this leading to grand statements of a boon for application developers: 100 million devices! Write Once, Run Everywhere! Neat theory, unclean reality. Just take a look at applications written for smartphones when playing on a tablet. iPhone apps do run, technically, on an iPad. And developers prefer rewriting those to better use the full screen. And what about code written for a Pre smartphone running in a printer, or a PC laptop using WebOS in a “quick-boot” arrangement?
We even hear rumors HP might do a Windows 8 tablet after all. No warranties expressed or implied.
In any event, this is a sad display of a once and still mighty company badly messing up its WebOS and TouchPad messages.
The reality is simpler — and harder: HP decided to enter the smartphone/tablet fray. It thus competes with Android and iOS. The consumerization of IT renders the “enterprise-only” pivot null and void. In this new world, Google and Apple wage an ecosystem war: devices + apps + distribution. Add marketing, if you want, but Word Of Mouth is still more potent than ad dollars. Or merely reinforces it.
This is the war HP is in. Bragging, pivoting or denying will only hurt.