Gone but not forgotten: a brief history of failed smartphone operating systems
The year was 2007, and the iPhone – a device that left a lot of people unconvinced at the time, but would ultimately prove to be revolutionary – had just debuted, and someone at Palm had clearly recognized the threat. The company’s solution was to hire Jon Rubinstein, a recent Apple retiree who was partially responsible for the original iPod, and put him in charge of their upcoming phones’ development. Two years later, the Pre, along with WebOS, was debuted at CES 2009, where it became the first non-Apple smartphone to use a multitouch screen. In April 2010, following the lackluster sales of the Pre, Pre Plus and Pixi, HP announced it would buy Palm in its entirety. A couple of phones later, the Palm name was dropped in favor of HP’s, but only two devices were released before the company ultimately scrapped its mobile plans, and along with them, WebOS as a portable operating system.
What went wrong
Despite its many positives, things were far from peachy for WebOS and its parent company right from the start. For starters, the Pre was announced just after the company’s worst stock market performance ever, going for as low as $1.42 per stock. While in time that figure increased significantly, it was ultimately not enough, resulting in the HP buyout. Palm’s devices weren’t selling as predicted, and in hindsight it’s easy to see the reason: apps. Or, rather, the lack of apps – who would’ve thought that the very thing that defines the concept of the smartphone is necessary for its success? The Mojo SDK, a.k.a. the thing necessary to build apps for an OS, launched a full month after the Pre did, which is bad enough for any phone, let alone one which launched with just a dozen or so apps. Combine that with Sprint’s lackluster marketing, along with Palm’s unwillingness to branch out and sell the device overseas in a serious manner,
Palm’s devices weren’t selling as predicted, and in hindsight it’s easy to see the reasonand you’ve got yourselves a clear market failure. In the following months, Android skyrocketed in popularity, ensuring subsequent WebOS devices will meet a similar fate.
Some time after the discontinuation of WebOS by HP, a licensing agreement between them and LG sort of revived the OS, which now powers a number of LG’s smart TVs, along with a variant of the LG Watch Urbane. Also, a successor to WebOS, named LuneOS, is in active development by the open source community, though it’s far from having a widespread adoption. Many of the OS’ features live on, most notably the card-based multitasking, though some of its advanced capabilities, such as card stacking/grouping, have failed to catch on.
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- The lost secrets of WebOS – Dieter Bohn / The Verge: An interesting look at Palm’s unfinished hardware and software products from just before HP called it quits.
- Seven years ago, the Palm Pre was primed to take on the Apple iPhone – Alan F. / Phone Arena: A more in-depth perspective on the Pre and the smartphone climate at the time of its release.
- The Short, Sad, And Painful History Of The Palm Pre – Ellis Hamburger / Business Insider: A quick but detailed history of the company in pictures.