The inside story of the death of Palm and webOS

Pre to postmortem: the inside story of the death of Palm and webOS | The Verge:

Thirty-one.

That’s the number of months it took Palm, Inc. to go from the darling of International CES 2009 to a mere shadow of itself, a nearly anonymous division inside the HP machine without a hardware program and without the confidence of its owners. Thirty-one months is just barely longer than a typical American mobile phone contract.

Understanding exactly how Palm could drive itself into irrelevance in such a short period of time will forever be a subject of Valley lore. There are parts of the story that are simply lost, viewpoints and perspectives that have been rendered extinct either through entrenched politicking or an employee base that has long since given up hope and dispersed for greener pastures. What we do know, though, is enough to tell a tale of warring factions, questionable decisions, and strategic churn, interspersed by flashes of brilliance and a core team that fought very hard at times to keep the dream alive.

The following is an account of Palm’s ascent prior to the launch of the Pre, the subsequent decline, and eventual end, assembled through interviews with a number of current and former employees.

Interesting and well-written piece on Palm and webOS by Chris Ziegler at the Verge. I didn’t contribute to it, and while I’d say it’s not 100% accurate as I know things, it’s well-researched and it’s a fair and pretty accurate history of what went down. 

Definitely recommended as a read for those still interested in this circus. 

In retrospect, I think a few key things killed what I still think was a legitimate shot at doing something special:

  • A corporate naiveté that the carriers were our partners. In fact, they were just our customers, and were completely behind us only until they found other things to be partners with (“android”). That said, I think both AT&T and Verizon treated us reasonably and most of the damage was in fact self-inflicted.
  • The first phone, the Pre, was not ready for prime time, hardware or software. 
  • I argued at the time, and I still feel strongly that I was right, that the decision to move forward with webOS 2.0 and the “Pre2” was a mistake, and that we needed to put phones aside and get a tablet out (and get a good tablet out) while the market was open to it. It was decided (I was told by Bradley) that it was important to stay in the market and we needed to keep our carriers happy with us, so they went forward. By the time we actually shipped the Pre2 and webOS 2.0 (long, redacted whimpering sigh of explanation about that death march belongs here, but no…) it was way late and nobody cared, and it pushed the tablet work out even later, so that by the time it came out, nobody really cared. 
  • The first tablet was pretty good. Nobody cared. It was priced the same as an iPad, which was insanely stupid. It killed the product; you can’t go up against the iPad with pricing parity and a a lesser product. If you can’t compete on feature and quality, compete on price. We did neither. Why? I don’t know. It could have been a re-entry into the market; it turned into a literal firesale, a viking funeral.
  • I think we under-scoped how much work was needed to get to first ship; first ship was therefore not what it needed to be. That dug a hole we never climbed out of.

For all of the criticism of the HP purchase, I’m still convinced that (a) it was our best shot, and (b) HP did everything it could to do right by us. That it didn’t work was at least partly because Palm was pretty broken even at that point (and never got fixed) and partly because HP needed to be capable of things that HP at it’s size simply wasn’t capable of. But it tried. Meg is trying to fix the latter, and I wish her nothing but luck. 

That said, of the rumors I heard about the sale, all indications were that all of the other serious offers were IP/Asset sales, not “continuing operations” sales — i.e., it was patents and technologies, not the engineering team and marketing. I was enthusiastically trying to get out of the company when the word came down it was HP and they wanted things to continue, because i was convinced the patents were going to HTC or Samsung and the rest was going out the side door into recycling. So criticize HP if you want, but any other buyer would have meant the end of webOS even sooner. The only other potential suitor at that time who might have kept webOS intact was Amazon, at the time looking for an alternative to Android, and I believe our burn rate was too high for their tastes; it wasn’t purchasing webOS, it was keeping it moving forward after that killed that possibility. 

We shipped too soon. We shipped too late. We marketed badly. Our quality was marginal. By the time we shipped decent stuff (Pre3, Touchpad), the market window had closed. Nice try, didn’t work.

But damn, it was worth a shot. If we’d executed better, we had the opportunity. we just didn’t do a good enough job of grabbing the brass ring when it was within reach.