For all the criticism former HP chief executive Leo Apotheker took for the TouchPad tablet disaster and his decision to abandon webOS after HP paid $1.2 billion to Palm for the mobile operating system, the fired CEO was dealt a losing hand from the start, according to former Palm and HP employees.
In a fascinating New York Times article, tech professionals who had been involved in webOS both at Palm and after the sale to HP said the mobile OS was a disaster waiting to happen:
Several former Palm and H.P. employees involved in webOS say that there was little hope for the software from the beginning, because the way it was built was so deeply flawed.
Chief among webOS's flaws was its reliance on Webkit, a open-source rendering engine that enables browsers to display web pages, but which proved to be too slow for running apps. This problem became apparent when Palm introduced the Pre smartphone in June 2009. From the NYT:
[C]ustomers immediately recognized that the phone was too slow, said [a] former Palm employee who worked on apps, and “this led to extremely high return rates.” There were also complaints about the phone spontaneously restarting itself or freezing up.
Sounds just like the kind of mobile OS a company like HP could ride to victory against Apple and Google! At least it apparently sounded like that to the other former HP chief executive, Mark Hurd, who was running the company when it acquired Palm and who departed in August 2010 in the face of sexual harassment allegations.
But Apotheker decided to run with Hurd's Folly, announcing last March that HP eventually would include webOS in all the computers it ships.
Four months later, HP unveiled the webOS-powered TouchPad tablet.
Six weeks later, in the face of dismal TouchPad sales, HP announced on August 18 it would kill off all webOS products, including the TouchPad and webOS smartphones.
Five weeks later, Apotheker was gone, primarily because his other strategy shift unveiled in August -- to dump the PC business of the world's largest PC manufacturer -- didn't play so well on Wall Street or among HP shareholders.
But he undoubtedly also was damaged by the entire webOS/TouchPad fiasco. And webOS really wasn't Apotheker's fault.
Leo's successor, Meg Whitman, announced in early December that HP would "contribute the webOS software to the open source community," which is another way of saying that HP is soliciting free development work in order to salvage something from its investment in webOS.
However, if what former HP and Palm employees say about webOS's fundamental flaws is accurate, the open source community will be no more successful than Apotheker.