Is this the end of the road for webOS?

Is this the end of the road for webOS?
It really is strange when we think about it. It seems like it was yesterday when all eyes were set on Palm's webOS – a shiny newcomer in the industry, promising to finally put an end to the iPhone's undisputed reign. Yesterday quickly passed though, and today HP – the company which eventually acquired Palm and its webOS - announced that it's discontinuing its operations for webOS devices. Why? What went wrong? A lot of stuff, really. But let's start from...

Where it all began

It all began at CES 2009, where Palm, a still independent company, introduced its once considered revolutionary and innovative mobile operating system, dubbed webOS. There was a lot of nice stuff going for this software – it looked unique, had an intriguing card-based multitasking system, deep integration of different services and a fresh take on device navigation via various gestures, which actually didn't seem too complicated to be gotten used to by an average Joe. The Palm Pre was the pilot device for this new OS, and although it wasn't a born leader, it looked cute with its pebble-like shape.

The long-anticipated launch of the Palm Pre was where the problems started. It turned out that the phone isn't really a product of fine craftsmanship – users complained of unpleasantly-feeling plastics being used, as well as numerous faults, again attributed to the construction of the handset. We hear what you're saying -  there hardly is a handset with no production issues. This is absolutely true, and the real problem with the design of the Pre was that it wasn't aggressive. A cute, chubby pebble? C'mon! Who would consider this a real threat for the iPhone? We did, but the market said otherwise. And what good is an OS, be it a pretty decent one, if it isn't running on a similarly impressive handset?

This was the mistake that was never made by the competition, in the form of Google, Motorola and Verizon.

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The rise of Android

One rarely gets a second chance in the wild (and the landscape in the wireless industry for the last few years has been quite wild indeed). The smallest mistake could be fatal. Palm made a mistake, and didn't even have time to fix it, as this was the moment when the Android mania began to furiously overtake the market. In a few months, the Motorola DROID hit, and no one cared anymore about the Pre and the rest of the smaller players, who suddenly felt unnecessary and irrelevant. A very inappropriate moment if you want to introduce something new, right?  Let alone if you want to fix something broken, and convince people that you've learned from your mistakes.

Now that we're deep into 2011 and Android is nothing new, are we ready for a new major OS to enter the business? Nah, Android is still interesting, and the iPhone sells better than ever. Plus, it just seems like there isn't enough smartphone consumer base yet to sustain a third healthy OS ecosystem. At this point, it is hard to imagine that the iPhone will go away, so it seems people will first have to get a bit tired of Android, which probably won't happen anytime soon. If it does happen, strong alternatives like webOS will be sought, but until then, manufacturers will have great trouble trying to push them forcefully to the market. Maybe that's why HP has given up, and maybe it's right to do so, because even if webOS has been part of the landscape for the last couple of years, it has never been big enough to become part of the average consumer's mindset. And a few loyal fanboys just won't cut it.

Battling for the third place

Even if there's this possibility of a third major OS being sucessfully established, Windows Phone 7 seems like the more likely candidate for now. Microsoft isn't going to give up the fight as easily as HP, although it will have an incredibly hard time as well, seeing the poor results of the first WP7 handsets. However, WP7 has one strong, and very devoted company behind its back, whereas webOS doesn't. Palm wasn't strong enough, and it looks like HP is not really devoted. Once the first disappointing sale results were in, HP was out. It turns out all the talk about an integrated ecosystem of computers, handsets, printers and so on has been, for the most part, just daydreaming.

So, it seems to us that Windows Phone has much better chances to establish itself as a prominent figure, which actually leaves webOS with such diminished chances for a breakthrough that we would hardly have our hopes high for it soon.

The Licensee

In June, HP said it is looking to license the webOS software to a small number of companies, in order to take the webOS ecosystem to a higher level. This is indeed a very wise decision, since it was such global scale that helped Android get where it is today. Now that HP itself doesn't intend to make its own smartphones, it is still looking for decent hardware partners to work with. And this might be the only opportunity for webOS to ever see the light of day again. Adoption is critical now, and the more licensees, the better. The only problem is it seems there aren't too many volunteers.

HTC and Samsung do look like appropriate candidates. They are companies that like to act on all possible fronts. HTC proved it isn't afraid of being an early adopter with Android. It produced not the first one, but the first two Android phones, and it's also active on the WP7 front. On the other hand, Samsung is running a healthy business of Android devices, but it also works with WP7 and has its own bada OS, which it is developing slowly and steadily, without burning too much resources in the process. So what's the problem with taking up a small webOS project? It won't bring the platform much popularity, but it will at least keep it alive, until the moment there's demand or need for it arrives. That is very important for the continuation of the OS, since if it ends up totally unused, no one will care to develop it further, and it may soon become obsolete.

The Outcome

The outcome of what's going on around webOS is still unclear. It is pretty unfortunate that HP decided to prematurely discontinue its work on the platform. Obviously, even the little reason why one should get a webOS device (TouchPad, Veer) is now gone, with zero support coming from HP in the future.

The happy-end scenario would involve a licensee from the rank of HTC or Samsung, which is willing to put some effort into designing a compelling webOS smartphone every once in a while, just to keep the fire burning. The negative one involves HP failing to come into agreement with a company, which would most probably mean that the memory of webOS will slowly fade away, or, at best, it means the software will be used in a lineup of printers, which doesn't really sound like the most fitting implementation for a full-fledged mobile operating system, even if it's one that is not particularly rich on apps. We sincerely hope it's the former scenario, as webOS is a great piece of sofware; it just needs to fall in the right hands.

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