HP has just announced that Jon Rubinstein is being replaced as the head of the webOS division. There’s a part of me that’s concerned about this, but another part thinks it was the right decision. This is because while this man has some real strengths, there are some serious weaknesses too.
After taking over as the head of Palm, Inc. a few years ago, Rubinstein performed what almost amounts to a miracle. He took a company that hadn’t been able to release a significant update to the Palm OS in about 5 years and refashioned it into an organization that created the webOS in a surprisingly short amount of time.
I’m a big fan of this operating system. It offers a system for working with multiple apps on a small screen that’s vastly superior to any of its rivals. You can easily switch between running apps, or close them, with just a couple swipes of your finger. It makes the systems for moving between and closing apps by Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android OS look like kludgey messes.
This is something I think darn few people on Earth could have done. He took a company that was completely stuck in the mud and turned it around to the point where it could create something truly innovative.
I’m sure some of you are asking, “If the webOS is so great, why did it do so poorly against the iPhone and the Droids of the world?” The answer is simple: this operating system was put in bad hardware. When the Palm Pre debuted in 2009, it was too small. Its 3.1-inch screen was marginal, but the portrait oriented keyboard was barely usable. No one picked it up and said “Hey, this is awesome!”
The wonderful software helped make up for this, and if Palm had learned its lesson things might have been different. If the company had released a follow-up smartphone with a larger screen and a landscape-oriented keyboard — something many, many people were asking for — Palm might still be here as a company today. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Palm followed the Pre up with the Pixi, which was even smaller. (And it had a name that kept 90% of man from ever seriously considering it.)
As time went by, Palm continued to not learn its lesson. In 2010 came the Pre Plus and Pixi Plus, which were just mildly updated versions of the originals. And in the pipeline were the Pre 2 and Veer, more small-formfactor smartphones.
These devices were competing against a range of models with ever larger and higher-resolution displays. The Motorola Droid came out in 2009 with the design that Palm should have adopted: a landscape-oriented slider with a 3.7-inch display and a keyboard you wanted to use. And it sold brilliantly — I could make a strong argument that if this smartphone hadn’t come out and been marketed so well by Verizon the entire Android OS would have been a flop. And this is just one of many examples Palm had of how to do things right — Palm just ignored them.
I blame Rubinstein for taking a great operating system and putting it in bad hardware. He’s the man in charge — the buck stopped on his desk. He should have seen the blindingly obvious: that the people who were designing Palm’s smartphones needed to be fired.
I also blame him for greenlighting some of the creepiest ads I’ve ever seen. Successful devices need great advertising. The iPhone showed us that, and so did the Droid. Palm was not successful at marketing any webOS phone.
As a result, Palm had to sell itself to HP last year. And now HP has replaced Rubinstein, for good or ill.
Rubinstein is being replaced by Stephen DeWitt, and I hope Mr. DeWitt can learn from his predecessor’s mistakes. People want larger screens on their smartphones, but they want better keyboards even more. He should give up the unhealthy fixation on portrait mode that previous webOS models have stubbornly held on to.
But at the same time, I hope DeWitt will have Rubinstein’s strengths as well. The webOS is a great operating system, but there’s always room for enhancement. I hope the new leader of webOS development will be able to keep this operating system improving steadily and consistently — that’s what Jon Rubinstein would have done.
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