Gone but not forgotten: a brief history of failed smartphone operating systems



Hey, remember Palm? Even though it got gobbled up and then mercilessly spat out by HP, back in its heyday it was one of the biggest makers of PDAs on the market. WebOS, the operating system which launched alongside the Palm Pre, was lauded as a game changer, offering a now universally used multitasking solution Palm called “activity cards”, a fully multitouch user interface, apps built directly using web technologies (hence the name), and so much more. Though it never got significant sales or market share, the OS was almost universally loved by tech enthusiasts, and its legacy lives on in the many features other operating systems have borrowed from it.


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.


One of the most interesting things about WebOS was its extensive use of gestures, to the point where devices using the OS had a special gesture area below the screen. Card-based multitasking, which is now considered the norm in mobile computing, made its debut in WebOS. Universal search, which brought results from multiple apps at once, too, was baked right into the OS from day one. A widely advertised feature, Synergy, was WebOS’ answer to the address book, importing data from many sources at once, including social media and email, and then storing it into the cloud. A nice touch was also the inclusion of a PalmOS emulator, called Classic, which allowed backwards compatibility with older apps.

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, and 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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