I first played with the WebOS based Palm Pre at GDC in the US, early 2010, and liked it enough to look for it at any other conferences or trade shows I attended. Sadly, Palm was pretty much down and out of the UAE market by the time Pre was launched and I knew that it would only take a miracle to bring it back. Thus I was quite excited when HP acquired Palm thinking that sooner or later, we will get to see a WebOS device in the Middle East. Oh well.
WebOS is a good example of why better products don’t always succeed. At it’s release, WebOS was arguably a better platform than iOS and Android. But iOS had the sexy appeal of the iPhone and Android had the support of multiple manufacturers. Both also had multi-billion dollar companies behind their backs.
Things didn’t improve much for Palm after the lacklustre debut and it started looking for a buyer in April 2010. Before HP officially announced that it had bought Palm, there were tons of rumours flying around with names like Dell and HTC thrown in as potential buyers. I wonder if things would have been any different for Palm if HTC had acquired it instead of HP.
I also wonder if things might have turned out a bit differently if someone else was heading the WebOS project instead of Jon Rubenstein, a former Apple exec who was literally recruited by Palm while relaxing on a beach in Mexico, enjoying his retirement. Prior to that, Rubenstein had spent almost 20 years working closely with Steve Jobs, and was a key figure behind the development of both the iMac and iPod. Yes, the man certainly has experience and seems nice, but his famous interview with Kara Swisher at CES 2009 revealed that he has never used an iPhone:
“We don’t pay that much attention to Apple….I know it sounds really strange,” says Rubinstein.
“Really?” Kara replies. “You don’t worry about the iPhone?”
“No, I really don’t,” Rubinstein answers.
“I don’t believe you,” says Kara, telegraphing a sentiment I imagine is widely held among the audience.
Rubinstein: “I don’t have an iPhone. I’ve never even used one.”
I don’t know about Jon, but I would think that keeping a close eye on competition, especially one that defines a new market segment, needs to be looked at inside out and then to figure what made it so successful and how one would improve upon that.
Looking at the bigger picture, the failure of Palm doesn’t look too surprising. Like Nokia, it was once a leader but all organizations, including Apple, have fallen from grace. It’s what you do next is what defines you and sadly for Palm, neither Rubinstein, nor HP could do much. The WebOS platform started as a cult and will sadly end as one.