Palm Software Director: “We Just Weren’t Able To Execute”

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20 and Brian X Chen has a great tick-tock detailing the initial fall – and continuing fall – of webOS. The interviews are quite telling, including a quote from Paul Mercer:

“Palm was ahead of its time in trying to build a phone software platform using Web technology, and we just weren’t able to execute such an ambitious and breakthrough design,” said Paul Mercer, former senior director of software at Palm, who oversaw the interface design of WebOS and recruited crucial members of the team. “Perhaps it never could have been executed because the technology wasn’t there yet.”

The most important line there is “the technology wasn’t there yet.” Considering a number of other OSes, including, most notably, WinPho 7, are able to do what webOS was supposed to do including social network contact control, status updates, and web-technologies-based UIs, I find this as a bit of a cop out.

The Pre came out in 2009 to much fanfare and was in a face-off against iOS and Android for most of its life cycle. The primary problems outlined in the article – lack of developer support, a speedy, nine-month build time, and general failures to secure key talent – sound like good excuses in retrospect but I think the lesson learned here is that Palm tried to play by start-up rules in an established game. Nine month programming jags to produce shipping code is fine when you’re doing a social network for goat lovers. It’s not so fine when you’re selling phones to a mass market.

I don’t miss webOS. Palm overshot and failed to convince a jaded public that it was worth switching. Palm died because the core audience – the “anything but iPhone crowd” – never received a clear, compelling reason to switch. Then HP bought it and, well, we all know what happened there.

In the end, Palm couldn’t build momentum or a product that worked. There are, oddly enough, still Pre fanboys out there who point to a great webOS open source renaissance but that’s about as likely as the average user caring enough about their Android phone to install Cyanogenmod: there is some impetus there, to be sure, but most people just want to check email, make calls, and buy a phone that will work for, at minimum, two years until the next big thing comes along.

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