HP, webOS, and looking to the future

Yesterday HP dropped a bombshell on the webOS community when they announced that they are discontinuing all of their webOS hardware (phones and TouchPad), and have no plans in place to take the operating system forward.

Honestly, I am still a little bit in shock over this. The timing of the announcement bewilders me (the TouchPad has been out less than two months, and the Pre3 was right around the corner), and I completely failed to see it coming. I knew that the TouchPad was not selling vast quantities, but my sales have been constantly rising since the TouchPad came out and my outlook for the platform was hopeful. I have been re-investing my profits from TapNote development back into TapNote—my secondary TouchPad for development arrived the day before yesterday—and my goals and plans for the app all revolved around incremental improvements leading to long-term growth.

Now my investments both of time and money are looking like very poor choices indeed. Best case scenario, I will likely continue to make diminishing profits in the short term as people who just adopted HP hardware continue to use it (those who do not return it to the store outright, that is). However, without hardware there is virtually no possibility for growth (the aftermarket for super-cheap TouchPads that will doubtless flourish short-term is unlikely to be a market of people interested in buying $5 apps), and judging by HP’s scattered and doublespeak-laden announcements yesterday it does not seem likely that they have anything concrete lined up as far as licensing deals. Their whole philosophy with webOS seems to have been “if we build it, they will come” (both for developers and users), and now they seem to have switched to “if we kill it, they will come” (for licensors). Needless to say, outside the cinema this strategy is typically not a good one.

This means months without hardware on the market as webOS becomes increasingly irrelevant. Assuming HP is successful in licensing webOS fairly quickly, we will still have to wait for that hardware to be released and any of us third party devs remaining loyal to the platform will doubtless have to revise our apps yet again to get them to run properly on a new aspect ratio, screen size, etc.

All of which offers very little in the way of incentive for a third party developer on the platform. My justifications for TapNote’s historical lack of profitability were that I was a) scratching my own itch, and b) investing in a platform that I foresaw growing. I’d thought this was paying off; being one of the few quality note-taking apps on the platform on launch day has certainly helped TapNote on the TouchPad. HP evidently saw things differently; Jon Rubinstein’s “marathon not a sprint” memo was evidently sent to the wrong people.

Looking forward

Where do I go from here? Honestly, I am still not completely sure. The webOS developer relations folks basically went dark yesterday as soon as the announcement hit, and I am still waiting to hear what their spin on the issue is. Richard Kerris (head of that department) has been posting ridiculously rose-colored-glass tweets, presumably trying to limit the damage caused by his superiors, but other than that no official statement or recommendation for third party devs has yet to arrive. So I am not going to make any final strategic decisions just yet.

What I do know is that I will personally continue to use and love my existing webOS hardware. Nothing has changed from my original glowing TouchPad review except that I am now extremely disillusioned with HP’s upper management and a bit more pessimistic about the long-term chances of the platform.

Development-wise, there will not be any significant updates to TapNote in the short term, but I will continue to support it. If you find bugs, I want to hear about them and I will help you find workaroudns or fix them myself. If you have feature requests, I’d love to hear those, too, although I can’t make any promises about if or when I’ll be able to act on them.

If any Pre3’s make it out into the wild, I will submit the update that I’ve been working on with full compatibility for its new size. I was originally planning to include a new theme for the TouchPad version in that update (and possibly filtering by document titles, to bring it up to feature parity with the phone version), and I will likely still release those improvements although on a much less urgent release cycle.

As with the fiasco of publishing a single package with support for multiple devices, my priorities are firmly on doing right by my existing userbase, even if HP upper management has once again shown utter contempt for that value.

Further down the road than that, I am not yet sure. I’ve poured most of my free time for over a year into TapNote, and if webOS does indeed fade into obscurity I would hate to see that just die. I am currently thinking of ways to keep TapNote relevant without needing to rely anymore on HP. However, this is also an excellent opportunity to refocus my priorities and get back into writing novels. I’d dearly love to be published (in some form) before I’m thirty, and app development has badly distracted me from that goal.

I hope webOS doesn’t die because I dearly love using and developing for it, but with such a bungled, rushed announcement on the part of HP I am not optimistic about its long-term chances. I have lost a lot of trust in HP’s decision-making process. Both Palm and HP have had fantastic developer relations and engineering/design departments whose efforts are routinely sabotaged by mismanagement and poor decisions from higher up the chain of command.

We shall see how things play out; I will certainly keep you updated about my plans as I continue to try and make sense of the mess that HP has left its third party developers and developer relations team to deal with.

6 responses to “HP, webOS, and looking to the future”

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  1. Greg says:

    Well put – just posted similar thoughts to my blog. I plan to keep developing apps for a while and see what happens. But I’m certainly not optimistic about the future.

    (and I feel really bad for everyone in Palm GBU, including Richard Kerris, since they were as blindsided as we were…)

  2. Todd Ransom says:

    I immediately thought of you when I heard the news yesterday and thought I would drop in and offer my condolences.

    As an iOS developer I of course would love to see the iPad continue to dominate the market but I also would love to see a strong competitor that did not come from the “don’t be evil, wink, nod” company that makes Android.

    Best of luck with TapNote, whatever may happen with webOS. Now get cracking on that urban fantasy novel!

  3. Ian, thanks for all the work you did on TapNote. It’s been absolutely essential to me on my TouchPad, and I really appreciate the risk you took with WebOS in the first place.

    I totally understand your reasoning, wish you luck with the novels, and maybe some day we’ll all be using TapNote on great new WebOS devices, despite HP acting like a kid in a toy shop with $billions of pocket money and a short attention span.

  4. I agree with everything you’ve written here. The Touchpad was my first webOS device, and I was drawn to it in large part because of the prospect of writing apps using the web technologies I already know and love.

    The fact that it’s running Linux, WebKit, and Node.js is amazing — if I were to think up the software stack for a platform without knowledge of webOS, I might come up with largely the same thing. The webOS team really seems to Get It, and it’s such a shame they’re being screwed yet again by incompetent, short-sighted management. How many of them are going to stick around to keep sinking years of their life into a platform their HP management clearly doesn’t respect or understand?

    Even if HP does work out a licensing agreement or sell off webOS outright, can the platform really survive yet another year-long period of limbo? I’d love to think it can, but in an already-cutthroat race for the third-place position, the prospects seem pretty bleak.

    I’m sitting on the beginnings of code for an app I was really starting to get excited about writing, but it seems like a rationally stupid decision to keep working on it. Even if HP has an aggressive plan to keep webOS relevant, their ridiculous mishandling of this announcement instills very little confidence.

  5. rsanchez says:

    For what it’s worth, I used many of your material in all my apps, biggest ones being the sqlite libraries for both Mojo and Enyo and the power scrolling (your approach was easier to follow than everyone else’s).

  6. Chuck K says:

    You could port the app to Android. That is the most probable direction for most WebOS phone users. Just think . . . Update notes on Android phone . . . Sync to touchpad . . . Update notes on Touchpad . . . Sync to phone. Future Android phone uses (which most of us will soon be) would love to have this option and would probably buy the app on both platforms. I would!!!

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