When I pick up my Palm Pre, flick it on, and consider it I realize that this is the most amazing device I have ever owned. Sure, the hardware has some problems (why the hell won’t the damned “H” key trigger every time?!), but overall I have made a downright emotional connection to the Pre that I was never able to create with the iPhone.
Part of the reason for this is that, unlike the iPhone, with the Pre and WebOS I was able to develop solutions for my phone that exactly filled my own needs. Where the iPhone and iOS forced me into the limited box of just another credit card hooked up to Apple, WebOS empowered me to create something new.
Yet as much as I love my current phone and the operating system it runs, yesterday HP drastically recolored my perceptions of WebOS to the point where I found myself glancing down at my Pre in disgust before I turned to my iPad for solace.
Developers complain about Apple all the time, but never has Apple shown the stunning disregard for their app developers that HP exhibited yesterday at their “Think Beyond” event and afterward, a disregard that is even more disturbing because most people will never notice it behind the glitter and sparkle of the prophesied TouchPad and Pre3.
The two faces of HP/Palm
Although I joined the WebOS bandwagon relatively late in the game, so far as I can tell there has always been a disconnect between the people on the ground and the people making strategy decisions. The Palm developer relations team is out of this world. They read and respond to developer problems in the forums. They answer emails personally, professionally, and above all, promptly. They are excited about the platform—often tweeting or blogging about it in their own time—and they share the desire of the developers to use WebOS in interesting and awesome ways.
These people are working their butts off to make WebOS an even more attractive place for developers to settle and build something amazing. They probably deserve a raise.
Sadly, as best I can tell these people have little decision making power when it comes to broader policies. That lies with the people who do not give a rat’s ass for developers one way or another, and we are reminded of this at events like yesterday’s TouchPad, et al announcement.
Oh, let me count the ways
At first pale, the announcement of the TouchPad, awesome new Pre hardware, and the tantalizing promise that WebOS may expand its reach onto PCs in the future would seem like nothing but good news for current WebOS developers. Here we are with a shrinking userbase and the resultant dwindling prospects for making anything more than pocket change off of an app, but new exciting hardware is on the horizon! The second coming of WebOS is here! Huzzah!
Except that this is not the case. With the exception of the Veer, which may or may not actually have a market, none of the exciting new hardware they announced will be out before “summer” (which could mean as late as September), and no prices were announced. This is a whole lot of hype and excitement being built around products that likely have six months before they’ll see the light of day—six months during which HPs competitors are free to find any number of ways to make the TouchPad and associated devices irrelevant. John Gruber thinks we might see not one, but two iPad releases, both of which could come out before the TouchPad ships. And Android is not standing still, either.
HP can crow about the unlimited mobile market all they want, but the fact is that they have very little foothold in it right now, and this is actively hurting their developers. TapNote has had fewer than 200 sales since I released it eight months ago. That’s very different from the projected multi-billion dollar market HP execs were drooling over on stage. If I ported TapNote to iOS (where it would have loads of competitors and be drowned anyway in the sea of crap) and did nothing to promote it but mention it on Twitter a few times, I could still probably get more sales than that.
All of this is why it is particularly infuriating that at the same event they announced exciting new hardware, HP announced that no existing devices (save the non-starter Pre 2) will receive updates to WebOS 2.
Oh, and the Mojo framework that every SDK app in the catalog is programmed using is deprecated in favor of a completely new framework that is currently alpha-level quality.
Let us stop for a moment and review that again:
- The existing userbase is tiny and dwindling fast
- The existing userbase will never be upgraded to WebOS 2.0
- To properly take advantage of new users, hardware, and WebOS updates, developers will need to rewrite their apps from scratch
- The new Enyo framework that is replacing Mojo is not yet finalized
We WebOS developers are basically offered the choice of abandoning our current users and past work and starting fresh in the hopes that six months from now when the TouchPad makes its way out the door it won’t have been preemptively hamstrung by the iPad 2 or whatever other interesting devices will likely precede it, or else we can continue slogging away at our Mojo apps which, although they will doubtlessly run at least on this first bunch of hardware, will be woefully unable to take advantage of the options provided by varying screen resolutions.
Oh, and if we do decide to go the rewrite route, the framework we will be developing against will likely change under our feet as we go.
To understate the issue, this sucks. It sucks particularly badly for the many developers like myself who are one-person shops, trying to make fantastic WebOS software in their free time.
Losing the long odds bet
When I switched to the Palm Pre and downloaded the SDK in preparation to start work on what would become TapNote, I knew I was making a bet against long odds. At the time, Palm was rumored to be diving head-first towards the grave, and despite some developers making fairly good money with promotions like Hot Apps, it was clear the number of WebOS users was minuscule compared to iOS or Android.
However, I had fallen in love with WebOS, and I was hopeful that given a chance Palm would be able to be the Apple competitor that I keep hoping for.
Now I find myself in the uncomfortable position of wondering if I have at long last lost the bet. HP has finally unveiled its grand plan for WebOS, and it is a plan that apparently does not involve announcing things that are actually ready to ship, or keeping promises about maintaining your existing userbase, or working to make developer’s lives easier beyond the efforts of your developer relations team. Is this going to be the pattern going forward? I am extremely leery of devoting a bunch of time and effort to a platform that abandons its existing users and developers at the first hint of a shiny new form factor. Best I can tell, what doomed Palm was the executives mismanaging what the talented engineers and developers below them created, and it is worrisome to me that this pattern appears to be repeating now that Palm has been folded into HP.
Should HP care?
Of course, when you do the math it is entirely possible that HP doesn’t need to care. I suspect that HP is cutting its ties to the past deliberately. Its existing users and developers are Palm’s early mistake, and not a terribly costly one to ignore (after all, even bad press is good press, and we’re such a small group that even if we never bought an HP product again it wouldn’t hurt their bottom line). Going forward, HP wants to do things right, get a slice of that multi-billion dollar mobile pie, and if that requires attracting all-new app developers over the next six months, so be it. Their excellent developer relations team will mitigate the damage somewhat, and if the TouchPad and Pre3 are indeed able to ship in a timely fashion and beat the odds they stand to not reinvigorate their userbase but completely reinvent it.
None of this changes the fact that screwing over your early adopters is not a great idea (and may bode poorly for HP’s behavior in the future), but if the money flows, those early adopters will just be a vocal minority drowned out in a sea of praise. Life’s unfair. Deal with it.
As personally unhappy as it makes me, when I woke up this morning I once again loved my phone (even if my opinion of HP/Palm is permanently tempered for the worse), so I suspect I will, in fact, find a way to deal with it.
However, I also hope that HP hears the outraged cries of its developers and takes them to heart. Perhaps forcing code rewrites and so forth on us right now is indeed the best of the bad routes forward. But if they continue to make sweeping decisions with complete disregard for their promises and established APIs, they are going to find themselves right back where they started: few developers, a paucity of quality apps, and a dwindling, disgruntled userbase.
Where to from here
Time will tell if HP’s bet on TouchPad and the Pre3 pans out. For myself, I am planning to continue development on the upcoming TapNote version 1.2, because I want to be able to synchronize my notes between my phone and other devices, regardless of what happens next. However, I am not sure if I will implement any major features after 1.2. I will certainly address any issues that come up, but with the development environment so badly in flux I will probably wait to see how things settle out before I decide if I should start rewriting for the new devices or regretfully bid WebOS adieu.