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Ramin Firoozye's (occasional) Public Whisperings

WebOS postmortem

Posted by: Ramin on June 5, 2012

Long before there was the iPhone and Android, there was PalmOS. It had a simple interface, could browse the web and access email, and you could download and install apps developed by third-parties. But then something happened, and Palm started resting on its laurels. The Treo was a big hit, but there was a long stretch of time where each new Treo was only very slightly different than the last one.

Many users and developers faithfully waited for Palm to come up with the successor to the Treo line. But alas, it took years and years and then Steve showed the iPhone and everything changed. Most of us moved on to the iPhone and Android and never looked back.

When webOS and the Pre finally came out, it was too little, too late. I faithfully signed up for their developer kit and went to a couple of their developer-only events down in Sunnyvale, but I came away thinking they had missed the boat. At the last developer day I figured they might shower those die-hards who had bothered to show up with free developer devices, to let them go out and evangelize the platform. But even then they didn’t get it. They raffled off a single tablet and most everyone  left after lunch.

Eventually the company got sold to HP and then slowly fell apart (ignonimously with the $99 fire sale).

The Verge has posted a detailed post-mortem of the history of webOS. It’s an entertaining read, in a rubber-necking roadside accident sort of way. But I can’t help but feel sad at how it all rolled out.

An interesting quote confirmed what most people suspected, that Apple’s huge cash hoard is helping it get first priority on the best parts so any other device manufacturer not called Samsung is going to get left using second-rate parts:

At that time, Apple was almost singlehandedly dominating the smartphone supply chain and it took an enormous commitment — the kind of commitment that only a giant like HP could offer — to tip the scale. “We told HP we needed better displays [for the Pre 3]. They’d come back and say, ‘Apple bought them all. Our suppliers tell us we need to build them a factory if we want the displays’ and they weren’t willing to put the billion dollars upfront to do that,” one source said. “The same thing happened with cameras. We’d pick a part, turns out Apple picked the same part. We were screwed left and right.” Without HP’s full financial support to buy its way into relevance, Palm was essentially left to pick from the corporate parts bin — a problem that would strike particularly hard later on with the TouchPad.

From a technical point of view, I think it was an interesting experiment using webKit for the entire UI. I personally think they could have taken an alternate path 😉 but I applaud them for having a go at it. Someone had to try it and see if it would work.

The Enyo interface, though, was an abomination. It was an an abstraction on top of two levels of abstraction and the fact that a developer had to manually tweak JSON (!) made it obvious it was a design cul-de-sac.

It’s sad to see Palm end up this way after what surely must have been heroic amounts of engineering effort. I still own and wear a tattered Handspring t-shirt and at the bottom of my filing cabinet is an old Palm III, a color Handspring Visor, and a bunch of Treos I really should get rid of, but for some reason can’t.