Lightsabers, software Darwinism and the demise of webOS

Rohan Pearce

Rohan Pearce is the editor of Techworld Australia.

You know how it goes. You're out of the office for a few days and come back to find HP has acknowledged its grand hopes for webOS have come to naught and there's a lightsaber* on your desk.

At least finding an elegant weapon for a more civilised age in your cubicle is somewhat surprising, unlike webOS' (effective) demise. The company also announced it's spinning off its Personal Systems Group, which is responsible for desktop PCs and notebooks as well as webOS devices.

Let's put this in perspective: The first HP-branded webOS devices were released in February. The devices have gone from sale to fail in a matter of months. The TouchPad was released in the US in July, and only launched in Australia last week.

Sure, HP says that it is still looking for ways to use webOS. But does anyone expect anything to really come of it? HP CEO, Leo Apotheker, told a conference call that "Sales of the TouchPad are not meeting our expectations." [Postscript: And at this point while writing this blog entry I just ended up just looking at that quote shaking my head.]

Dan Olds of the Gabriel Consulting Group put it succinctly: "Tablets are hot right now, but webOS isn't." "Tablets are rapidly coming down to a choice between Apple and Android-based machines — with Microsoft looking for an opportunity to get in as well," he said.

We shouldn't neglect the true historical significance of the HP Touchpad, however: The runout sales in the wake of HP's announcement have made tech history, with price parity between the US and Australia being achieved for probably the first time ever ($98 here, $US99 there).

It's horrible having to plough through all the analyst guff about the 'lean forward' work culture versus the new 'lean back' leisure culture, but there's no denying that the tablet category has taken off. Well, if you're Apple that is.

The reality is that no tablet — Android, webOS, or the frequently laughable Windows-based offerings — has come even close to matching the iPad or the iPad 2 in terms of sales. And — I write this as an Android fan — in terms of software ecosystem. And price point. And hardware quality.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said that webOS "did have a chance at the enterprise market, but it was never going to challenge the iPad's very strong position in the consumer tablet space". But of course, tablet adoption in businesses is being driven largely by the 'consumerisation of IT'/'bring-your-own-device' trend.

Given Android has had trouble competing on the app front when it comes to tablets, what chance did webOS really have?

The sad thing about HP ditching its tablet/smartphones play is that webOS was actually a pretty good OS. GoodGearGuide reviewer Ross Catanzariti described the TouchPad's interface as the best he'd ever seen on a tablet device. In the end, webOS has been a victim of software Darwinism. Survival of the fittest in this case is not about which platform is 'best' in a technical sense — it's about whether it's got what it really takes to survive, whether that is Apple's hardware excellence, market lead and well-integrated device ecosystem (as well as horrible hipster appeal and trendiness) or Android's adoption by a broad swathe of vendors and (relative) openness.

As always, feel free to drop me a line at rohan_pearce at if you need to let me know how things really are. You can also find me as @rohan_p on Twitter.

-- Rohan

*(Apparently Star Wars is launching on Blu-ray in September.)

Tags: tablets, webOS

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