WebOS as it was introduced by Palm in June of 2009 was an elegant OS. At the time Apple’s iOS(iPhone OS then) was revolutionizing the industry. Google’s Android was just getting started out, its openness being pit against the simple elegance of iOS.
The entire industry loved WebOS, here was a smartphone OS which could match iOS in its graphical fluidity and stand up to Android in its feature list. It was the only OS which did multitasking right. In fact no smartphone or tablet OS is yet to handle multitasking as elegantly as WebOS did. Where it was beaten was in hardware – physically the Pre was a flimsy device and WebOS was available only on it; a far cry from the industrial design of iPhone(and then iPhone 3G) and the sea of options available on the Android side of the fence.
But the smartphone OS ecosystem was still nascent and no one could foresee how things would turn out to be in two and half years. Now we know – WebOS is being killed, by its new parent HP. A long sequence of events over the last few years led up to this moment.
When Palm announced a year and a half back, in April 2010, that it is being bought over by HP dark clouds loomed in the sky. HP never had a history of making successful mainstream OSes or consumer oriented handheld devices of any kind(PCs and Laptops are hardware assembly). The only handheld it ever had was the iPaq which it got only because of the acquisition of Compaq. HP had been enticed by the exponentially growing smartphone market – there was a lot of money to be made here.
For the next year or so, there was mostly silence from HP on a clear plan for the future of WebOS. They had a vision to be sure, which, if it were to play out to HPs liking, would mean that WebOS would run all their printers and other consumer devices. This was disheartening enough, a wonderful smartphone OS being relegated to running on printers!
Then in February this year, HP put a smile back on all our faces when it announced that WebOS will be launched on a new wave of consumer handhelds – 3 no less! The HP Veer, which is a tiny phone with smartphone capabilities, the Touchpad, to compete with the iPad, and the HP Pre3, which is a full blown smartphone. Things looked great.
It took HP three months to bring out the Veer. Why they came out with the lowest-end WebOS instead of the flagship Pre3 is anybody’s guess. Nonetheless, we got our hands on a real WebOS phone. Initial reviews were generally positive on the OS side while on the hardware side, the Veer was lackluster. Too small for most people to use WebOS on it effectively. Very similar to how the original Palm Pre had fared – good software on less-than-average hardware.
Later in June-July we were greeted by the Touchpad to much less positive reviews. While generally accepted that WebOS was not at fault, the hardware seemed to have let it down again with frequent slowdowns and glitches. WebOS, though buggy and surely responsible for some of the tablets performance, had gotten all the basics right. It did not feel like a hackneyed attempt to upscale a smartphone OS to fit a tablet. Whatever the shortcomings, software can always be improved over time through frequent updates, as Apple has brilliantly shown.
My guess is that HP, during the entire design phase had been aiming to best the iPad and along the way Apple pulled off a smart one and released iPad2 in a much sleeker frame and faster hardware. By the time the Touchpad came out, the iPad2 was the established king of the tablet market and had much better specs than HPs device. This naturally reflected in the shoddy sales.
Another pet reason is that, HP had a new CEO around the same time as the Palm takeover – Leo Apothekar. Leo is an out-and-out enterprise services guy with zero interest and experience in mainstream consumer software & hardware. Had the Veer and Touchpad been successful somehow, perhaps Leo would have indulged in them for longer. We are yet to see the Pre3 and post HPs decision to shut down WebOS, we can be pretty sure that Pre3 will be dead on arrival(if it arrives at all!).
So now where do we stand with the smartphone OS landscape? As consumers, its always good to have choice. The more choice, the better. Monopolies never help. Competition drives innovation and brings prices down. It is because of this ideology that WebOS’s demise hurts.
We have iOS as the undisputed leader now with a healthy share in the smartphone market and a 90+% share in the tablet market. iOS is an extremely mature OS now with a well established ecosystem of devices and an extremely populous appstore. Android has come up from behind to beat iOS as the top dog when it comes to smartphones but this has more to do with the number of devices Android is on rather than the overall feel and quality if the OS itself. It has a decent appstore, which according to some reports is not very popular with developers due to fewer returns, since most apps can be sideloaded on to an Android device.
Other than these two heavyweights, we have Microsofts Windows Phone7(WP7), which is a following a strategy partly inspired by Apple(strict hardware requirements, little fragmentation and appstore only) and partly by Google(multiple devices from different manufacturers). While WP7s first stint in October-November last year was not too successful, it has garnered a lot of praise for the design, fluidity and overall feel from critics globally. Its next revision, Mango, which is due later on in the year, plans to plug most holes in its feature set and previews so far have been very positive. Also, Microsofts partnership with Nokia is surely going to help introduce WP7 to a much larger audience globally. Here is hoping that WP7 never meets the same languishing fate of WebOS.
RIMs QNX platform is that final contender left now. Though RIMs playbook failed to catch much attention in the market, their OS too, to my eyes, looks like it has all the basics right. It is not a blown-up smartphone OS, has a slick and fluid UI. Its flaws as of now are predominantly software related – some essential apps(like for mail management) missing and an empty appstore – which can be slowly but surely filled in over time. RIM must, somehow must, stay on in the game and push QNX harder. We cannot have another OS dying off.
An exceptional OS I’ve not mentioned above at all is Meego. It too held promises of a glorious future with Intel and Nokia backing it. Now that Intel has bowed out of the game to focus on the threats it is facing from ARM, and Nokia too failing to move beyond Symbian in time, it looks like Meego also is going to fade away. The Nokia N9, due to be out shortly, brilliantly showcases Meego, but now that Nokia is staying steadfast with WP7 it is not expected to do well. It is unfortunate that Meego could not be nourished further.