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Rose-colored glasses

Since HP’s announcement yesterday that they’re discontinuing webOS device development (and probably webOS itself, as we know it, but they won’t admit that yet), I’ve read a lot of smart writers eulogizing webOS and mourning its premature death.

HP claims that inferior hardware was the problem, and apparently webOS could run much faster on the iPad hardware. The implication, of course, is that webOS could be awesome and more competitive with iOS in a few more hardware generations, or if HP could license it to someone who could build better hardware. (It’s certainly worth asking why HP couldn’t make adequate hardware themselves.)

The hardware, not the software, was supposedly holding webOS back from being successful.

But looking back at the TouchPad’s reviews, they were almost universally in agreement that the software was just as mediocre as the hardware.

Gizmodo:

But for every detail that Palm gets right—the re-sizable keyboard that’s pretty nice to type on—it blows something else, like not having a double-tap spacebar shortcut for periods, or the lengthy, complicated mounting process to get your music on there. …

There are critical apps in beta form, like Kindle and some surprises, like Facebook. … It’s funny that the TouchPad is the third tablet platform to run Flash, and it’s also the third tablet on which Flash runs like garbage.

The Messages app was a consistent bag of hurt, refusing to sign on at all sometimes, or to deliver AIM messages, even though I kept receiving them. Email contents wouldn’t show up, often up to 10 seconds after I opened a message. The HP app to get music onto your TouchPad is loathesome—pure HP, and sweet Christ I hope it’s not a sign of things to come for Palm. (Speaking of: Where’s the cloud music?) And there are so many more little problems throughout (ugh, Skype).

Josh Topolsky:

Presses to buttons on the screen would go unanswered, applications would suddenly pause, lists I was scrolling moved intermittently and erratically (or would just disappear altogether). Sometimes the device felt smooth and light, while at other moments it locked up or sputtered to a point of complete aggravation. More than once I had the entire system freeze and then reboot while I was in the midst of navigating (or trying to navigate) my way out of some weird UI fender bender. All across the OS I found myself discovering dark corners of unfinished or untested chunks of the UI, like when I would use the upward swipe gesture to bring up the launcher, and accidentally open an app instead.

And it wasn’t just about speed or smoothness. The new virtual keyboard provided here — while very capable at times — would often not respond or respond slowly to key presses, making for messy emails and messages. …

Skype, while integrated into the core of the OS for calls (more on this below), was generally buggy, frozen, unable to connect, or just downright awkward to use. Rotation on the device was a pain too, as it would often change direction unexpectedly, or alternately fail to respond to orientation shifts when it was asked.

Walt Mossberg:

[On] various occasions, the email app failed to display the contents of messages, the photos app failed to display pictures, and the game “Angry Birds” crashed repeatedly. All of these problems required a reboot of the device to resolve. In addition, I found the TouchPad grew sluggish the more I used it. Again, a reboot was needed to restore normal speed. …

The Web browser generally worked well, but Flash was uneven. Most Flash videos played fine, but some froze or stuttered badly, even on a fast Internet connection. A site written entirely in Flash wouldn’t even load.

Harry McCracken:

In my trials, the TouchPad too often just didn’t work. A few examples:

  • Music playback didn’t always begin the moment I pressed play, and sometimes stammered mid-song;
  • A 1080p movie that looked dynamite on the iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab 10.1 wouldn’t play at all on the TouchPad;
  • The tablet thoughtfully discovered and configured the HP printer that sits on my network. But whenever I tried to print, it told me that my OfficeJet was incompatible.

The TouchPad was at its shakiest when I crammed its RAM with a bountiful supply of apps, Web pages, and other items. Like an overtaxed Windows 98 computer, it would crack under the pressure, rendering screens incompletely, ignoring my input, and (on one occasion) spontaneously rebooting. Closing a few programs restored it to good working order. I know that it’s possible to build a tablet that doesn’t freak out when it’s short on memory, though — because I’ve never seen an iPad or Honeycomb tablet do it.

Third-party hardware won’t fix this.

Some performance problems can be mitigated with faster hardware. But many can’t, as anyone running Photoshop on a Mac Pro knows: fast, multicore processors don’t help most architectural inefficiencies in software.

Even if hardware could someday make webOS consistently responsive, it would likely be working much harder to do it, since so much of webOS is written in high-level “web technologies”. In addition to the performance complaints, most of the reviews agreed that the TouchPad had significantly lower battery life than the iPad 2. That makes sense: the CPU needs to work harder, wasting more power, to manage webOS’ complex interface and high-level architecture.

If that’s the case, it will always be the case. webOS can’t compete strongly if its devices are always significantly slower, have worse battery life, or need bigger batteries than competing devices in the same hardware generation.

Even if performance could somehow be fixed, every review also cited significant problems with bugginess and poor attention to detail. These betray deep-rooted problems in the organization: why was such a buggy, unfinished OS shipped, and why didn’t anyone care about the details?

These seem to be perpetual problems with webOS devices. They’re always supposedly 6 months away from being awesome, but they’re always too sluggish and with too many rough (or sharp) edges.

Anand Lal Shimpi’s criticism of the first Palm Pre in 2009:

Palm needs to work on a lot unfortunately. Synergy needs tweaking, there’s no visual voicemail, limited search functionality, limited copy/paste and there’s absolutely no reason that anything should ever be slower on the Pre than on the iPhone. It’s like me writing software that somehow runs faster on an Athlon 64 than on your Core i7 system. It’s clear that Palm has a lot of optimizing left with the Pre. I’d say there’s a good 6 months of work there to get this thing perfect.

Sounds familiar.

HP definitely mismanaged Palm. The TouchPad’s software shouldn’t have shipped when it did. The hardware wasn’t very good. The marketing was insufficient. The retail channel was poorly managed.

But webOS, despite having some great ideas, never became competitive. Palm and webOS’ developers bear most of the responsibility for that, not just HP’s managers.

This is a high-stakes game. Apple is kicking everyone’s asses so much in the “tablet market” that it’s really not accurate to call it that. Competitors need to be great on day one to stand a chance.

webOS was always “getting better soon”. Maybe we should finally give up our unfounded hope, like HP probably has, that webOS ever could have been great, because it never was.

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