David Zax

A View from David Zax

Was WebOS Doomed from the Start?

Early mistakes may have led to the OS’s troubles.

  • January 2, 2012

When a product that appeared to hold promise fails, there come the post-mortems. WebOS isn’t dead yet, but it might be called moribund–HP’s recent decision to open-source it smacks of Hail Maryism–and the New York Times has managed to turn up a few former engineers on the software to tell us where it went wrong. “[I]t never could have executed,” says one.

That quote comes from Paul Mercer, the former senior director of software at Palm, WebOS’s original developer, which was acquired by H.P. for $1.2 billion in 2010. The Times calls the story of the TouchPad’s failure “an object lesson,” and indeed there are a number of takeaway points from Mercer’s and others’ dissection (or perhaps vivisection) of the ailing OS.

A chief flaw–and one reason why WebOS may never be a true iOS or Android competitor–appears to have been HP’s early decision have WebOS rely on WebKit, which describes itself as an “open source web browser engine.” That description should give you pause: that’s a web browser engine, not a tablet operating system engine. Some discussion on Slashdot reveals why this decision was arguably “absurd.” The decision to use WebKit made the TouchPad noticeably slower upon its launch; that was the kiss of death to the tablet, which H.P. abandoned in mere weeks.

The real mistake, though, seems to have been one of failing to adequately manage human resources. The failure to retain key talent through Palm’s acquisition by H.P. may have been even more severe than the decision to rely on WebKit. Indeed, a telling quote from the Times piece even suggests that, in a way, H.P. didn’t acquire WebOS: Rather, Google did.

“He was WebOS,” one unnamed source told the Times. He was speaking of Matias Duarte, who had been the vice president of human interface and user experience for WebOS. When the Palm Pre was unveiled in 2009, Duarte was the guy who presented it. And WebOS’s major selling point–and the cause of many a lament that H.P. junked the TouchPad so quickly–was its user experience and elegant design.

Today, though, via his Google+ profile, Duarte is posting videos like the following:

That’s right: shortly after the acquisition of Palm, Duarte was scooped up by Google, where he heads up Android’s user experience, culminating recently in the glowingly reviewed Galaxy Nexus. “When he left,” says that same unnamed source, “the vacuum was just palpable. What you’re seeing is frankly a bunch of fourth- and fifth-stringers jumping onto WebOS in the wake of Duarte’s leaving.”

Who, then, really acquired WebOS–or, at least, the part of it that worked best?

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