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Mobile IoT: Article

webOS Doomed from Conception: NYT

The paper poses the WebOS story as an “object lesson

The TouchPad tablet that HP brought to market last year only to kill it a few weeks later for lack of sales was doomed to fail according a story in the New York Times Tuesday.

HP subsequently wrote off a nasty $1.6 billion to cover the cost of its folly. It had paid $1.2 billion in mid-2010 to buy Palm and the webOS operating system running the tablet.

The Times' story, which quotes the former senior director of software at Palm Paul Mercer by name as well as several other anonymous ex-HP and Palm employees, claims the widget - like the Palm phones HP also discontinued - didn't have a pray of cutting it against Apple and Android because webOS is based on WebKit, the open source rendering engine that browsers use to display web pages and WebKit, which was supposed to make writing apps easier, is just too slow to run applications on a par with iPad and iPhone.

That, the story goes, may explain why, despite "glowing reviews," the first webOS device, the 2009 Pre phone, experienced "extremely high return rates." Users also complained that the device spontaneously restarted or froze up.

"Palm was ahead of its time in trying to build a phone software platform using web technology, and we just weren't able to execute such an ambitious and breakthrough design," Mercer told the paper. "Perhaps it never could have been executed because the technology wasn't there yet."

Last month, after supposedly failing to sell the thing, HP open sourced webOS, figuring that between the free community labor and the hundreds of employees it says it's still got working on the stuff it might rehabilitate the widgetry enough to go back into the tablet and phone business.

It told the Times that webOS and WebKit performance has been enhanced recently and the OS could still be deployed in computers, TVs and cars. Mercer told the Times that's bologna.

Of course Mercer now works for Google and it's whispered in other corners that Google is afraid that HP will be able to salvage the stuff although the code has yet to be published, an event that will reportedly take another three-six months.

Sources told the Times that webOS was developed in a mere nine months without any reusable, recombinant technological building blocks to create applications. Palm employees reportedly had to construct each app from scratch. The building blocks were added later, an exercise that was subsequently overhauled once by Palm and again by HP, the Times says, forcing programmers to relearn how to build webOS apps.

That fact may have alienated outside developers but one of the paper's sources said the managers and engineers running the effort were simply the wrong people. Mercer said that in 2009 it was hard to find programmers who really understood WebKit and that Apple and Google had already snapped up most of the top talent. Palm also reportedly underestimated how many people it would take to make improvements.

Moreover, Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein, the ex-Apple hardware guy ultimately responsible for the decision to rely on WebKit, "did not understand the logistics of creating a powerful new operating system," the Times said.

Rubinstein is still at HP, doing what these days is unclear.

Once HP took over, Palm lost key members of the WebOS team. Mercer was already gone. VP of design Peter Skillman went to Nokia. VP of human interface and user experience Matias Duarte, apparently the biggest loss, essentially described as the soul of webOS, went to Google last year to work on Android's user experience, supposedly leaving behind a "bunch of fourth- and fifth-stringers."

HP was supposed to put the stuff on all its hardware including PCs and printers, supplying the investment, engineers, marketing heft and reach Palm lacked. The Times heard it added "layers of vice-presidents" and "hundreds of engineers" to the TouchPad team before canceling it.

The paper poses the WebOS story as an "object lesson" illustrating "how hard it will be for anyone to mount a serious challenge to Apple and Google when it comes to mobile operating systems."

More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at)sys-con.com or paperboy(at)g2news.com, and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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