Palm is Dead . . . For Real

Palm Logo
Palm Logo

Just over one year ago, Palm—the mobile computing company known for the Palm Pilot and one of the original smartphones, the Treo—was absorbed by Hewlett-Packard (HP). I was a long-time Palm supporter, having owned a Palm OS-running Handspring Visor Pro, a Palm Treo 650 (my first smartphone), and later a WebOS-based Palm Pre Plus. Despite some of the most spectacular corporate mismanagement in technology history, Palm still managed to make some really excellent, innovative hardware and software over the years.

At the time of the HP buyout, I wrote a piece called Palm is Dead; Long Live Palm. I lamented the end of Palm as an independent company, but was cautiously optimistic about the future of the groundbreaking WebOS mobile operating system. WebOS was, and remains, the most user-friendly mobile operating system out there. Imagine Apple’s iOS without the stupid limitations; imagine Android without the interface kludginess. Not only that, but it was super-easy to develop for; you write applications for it in industry-standard web languages HTML, CSS, and JavaScript (with a handful of API extensions). I even wrote my own weather app.

HP had the money and infrastructure to make WebOS a success. Palm, as an independent company, was teetering on bankruptcy when the mediocre Pre smartphone came out. Palm managed to get the Pixi on the market, and then followed both with the nominally-updated Pre Plus and Pixi Plus. It was clear that Palm had cut some corners, but many of us saw the potential in the platform and embraced it anyway. Unfortunately, they were unable to get the broad adoption they needed—among either developers or users.

My hope was that HP would immediately invest a lot of development money into its newly-acquired mobile division. They needed to get a flagship phone on the market immediately, spec-competitive with the iPhone and flagship Android devices, and get a tablet out. They dragged their feet on both counts. When the HP TouchPad finally came out, it was spec-competitive with the original iPad . . . but iPad 2 and innovative Android devices like the Asus EeePad Transformer were already out and made it look antiquated. The Pre 3, which looked like a competitive flagship smartphone when it was announced back in January, still hasn’t come to market in the U.S., and has long been supplanted by newer, better, more powerful phones. If it finally came out now, it would need to be positioned as a low-end device.

As a dedicated Palm fan, I held out until after the ‘Think Beyond’ WebOS event back in January . . . but it became clear then that six months in the HP family had done little to fix the organization formerly known as Palm, and no influx of serious development money was forthcoming. I reluctantly jumped-ship to Android and, while I am thrilled with the more up-to-date phone and the broader software selection (namely Kindle, QuickOffice, Flash, and numerous innovative Google apps) I still miss the easy usability and seamless multitasking of WebOS. I still hoped for a WebOS resurgence.

HP did finally invest some advertising money, but they didn’t invest in the product. They did it backwards. You get some really awesome hardware on the market and then you advertise the heck out of it. You don’t advertise the heck out of mediocre, outdated hardware and hope people will buy it anyway. As HP has learned, they won’t.

Today, Hewlett-Packard announced that they are shutting down their “WebOS device operations.” What this means is that HP will be discontinuing their WebOS mobile phone and tablet products, effectively marking the death of the organization once known as Palm. The company claims they will continue working on the WebOS operating system itself, but it is unclear to what end. It would appear that HP intends to try licensing WebOS to other manufacturers, much like Google and Microsoft licence Android and Windows Phone respectively to other companies like Nokia, HTC, Samsung, and Motorola (which is soon to be acquired by Google). They might also sell the rights to WebOS entirely to another company, or let it die through slow attrition, or try to figure out some odd, novel way of keeping it alive as a widget environment on their PCs, or in the ‘cloud,’ or whatever.

If you ask me, this is an overly complicated way of saying WebOS is dead, along with the organization that birthed it.

It is a sad ending not-unlike the inglorious death of BeOS, a similarly innovative and groundbreaking operating system (for desktops, in this case) with a small niche market that was bought out by a company that could have been its savior, but instead let it die.

Ironically, the company that bought and destroyed Be, Inc. and the BeOS system was none-other than PalmSource, the software division of Palm that created the original Palm OS before it was spun-off into a separate company. It was eventually bought-out by Access Ltd., and the original Palm OS also died of inexcusable corporate neglect. PalmSource was a separate company from PalmOne, which later became Palm again, and then got bought by HP . . . but they both sprung from the original Palm Inc. that brought us the original Palm Pilot. It seems to be a sad pattern for all branches of the company once called Palm; sparks of brilliance, extinguished by mismanagement.

Goodbye, Palm. It was a great ride.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.