We had a crush on WebOS once. It showed up in 2009 in the Palm Pre, and turned our heads with its swish multitasking and clean look. Finally, a rival to iPhone OS and Android, we thought. Commercially, though, it has proved an almost unmitigated disaster. And now ex-Palm senior director Paul Mercer has spoken up about why he thinks that happened.
In an interview with the New York Times, Mercer states that it was all-but doomed from the start, saying “perhaps it never could have been executed because the technology wasn’t there yet.” Central to this argument are the operating system’s Webkit roots. Webkit is an engine designed for use with web browsers, and Mercer suggests that it left WebOS apps just too slow to compete with rivals of iOS and Android. This led to huge return rates for the Palm Pre.
Victim #1, the Palm Pre
Hope returned to the WebOS camp after Palm was bought out by HP, with the idea that it would “put WebOS on all [its] hardware.” However, as all keen gadget fans will have seen, this isn’t what happened. As Mercer says, “WebOS became their shiny new toy, but then they just abandoned it.”
Mercer points towards plenty of internal issues within the HP camp for this, including the departure of Matias Duarte, a key figure in the WebOS interface equation. “He was WebOS,” says Mercer, and left a great big hole in the project.
Victim #4, the Touchpad – lost in the great fire sale of 2011
With a position a little further away from the action, it’s easy to put forward a half-dozen other reasons for the failure of WebOS. The Palm Pre turned up two years after the iPhone, and a year after the first Android smartphone. The HP Touchpad was priced at the same level as the iPad – which did the BlackBerry PlayBook, HTC Flyer and Motorola Xoom no favours either. There are other factors involved, but Mercer talks a lot of sense. And sadly, he sees little reason to celebrate the future of WebOS, now that the platform has gone open source, saying that Webkit is “not ready for prime time.”