Hewlett-Packard could have survived the less-than stellar reviews of its WebOS-based TouchPad, and it could have survived a slow start in retail outlets like Best Buy. Its panicky decisions to slash pricing just weeks after it launched the TouchPad could have ultimately been overlooked and forgotten.
But the mistake that killed the TouchPad, leading to Thursday’s announcement by HP that it was discontinuing the product, was that it just didn’t trust anyone outside of its company while it developed the operating system and its hardware. It wasn’t until after HP launched its new tablet platform that the company made its software development kit (SDK) generally available to outside and third-party app developers. That ensured that, on launch day, the cupboard would be bare when it came to apps.
One or two killer apps for WebOS might have been all HP would have needed to generate some excitement around the device. There were some OK and functional apps for download onto the TouchPad, and they seemed to work, but there weren’t enough of them and they weren’t any better than the best apps you’d find in the Android Market or the iTunes App Store. When HP opened up on WebOS to developers, it was just too little, too late.
(A small number of developers were able to gain access to the SDK – but only if they were members of HP’s Early Access Program. The rest of the world had to wait until the July 1 TouchPad launch.)
Even Apple, one of the most secretive companies in the history of world commerce, releases its code to developers months in advance of its launch of a new Mac OS X or iOS. As a result, Apple now brags the widest and deepest ecosystem of vetted, third-party mobile apps for its iPads, iPhones and iPod touch devices -- and the gulf is growing by leaps and bounds every day.
On the Android platform, which is open and gives anyone the opportunity to create apps for download onto devices, there are also apps for anything and everything – of all kinds of quality.
HP’s TouchPad effort was led by its Palm unit, which is run by Jon Rubinstein. Rubinstein, you may remember, worked at Apple and led development of the first-generation iPhone. Without the benefit of third-party apps, Rubinstein couldn’t recreate the magic with the TouchPad.
In what will no doubt become one of the most famous memos in technology history, Rubinstein compared early, negative TouchPad reviews to early, negative reviews of Mac OS X and urged his troops to be patient:
"We still have work to do to make webOS the platform we know it can be, but remember…..it’s a marathon, not a sprint."
Well, it turns out, it was a sprint.
If there can be a business lesson in the demise of HP’s TouchPad it is that not even the world’s largest technology company can go it alone. By shutting out most third-party app developers from getting WebOS 3.0 development tools until after the actual launch, HP and Rubinstein isolated themselves and ensured the company would not have enough air support (or app support) when it jumped into the tablet wars.
It was a mistake that HP never got to correct, because when the competition is as fierce as it is in mobility, there are no marathons.