The business press is abuzz today with the news that HP is pulling the plug on its WebOS smartphone and tablet lines. This won’t be any huge surprise to people who’ve been following the discussions on Armed & Dangerous; WebOS has looked terminal to us for a long time.
Still…WebOS didn’t suck, technically speaking. It was certainly better constructed than the turd-with-frosting that is WP7. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the circumstances of its demise, and what its difficult history tells us about the future.
WebOS’s problem was that the coolness stopped there. The source was closed, with all the usual bad effects including higher defect rates and lower developer interest. The actual implementation was prone to user-visible bugs. HP lacked the aggression and marketing skill to actually sell the devices to the public – actually, and even more damningly, they never seemed to figure out what the products were for.
Apple’s smartphones have a narrative hook: “We’re the experience designers for the cool kids.” Android’s smartphones have a narrative hook: “You are in control and the source is open.” RIMs have a narrative hook: “Serious devices for serious business.” Microsoft has one too, even if it’s just “We’re Microsoft. Resistance is futile.” WebOS never found its hook.
RIM is next to the wall, probably. WP7 should already have been terminated for extreme failure (Samsung’s own-brand Bada OS is actually outselling it), but it isn’t a normal product bet – it’s Microsoft’s forlorn and only hope of staying relevant in the smartphone-centric future of computing. Thus, it will probably continue bleeding cash until it takes Microsoft down with it.
Apple’s vulnerability shouldn’t be underestimated. Yes, they’re making money hand over fist and there has been adulatory press lately about record market cap and large cash reserves than the U.S. Federal government…but Android tablet market share has climbed from zip six months ago to 20% today, and if I were Apple’s planners I’d be worried about the fact that their smartphone sales aren’t growing any faster than total market volume.
Some sort of larger shakeout seems to be going on. WebOS kicked the bucket at about the same time that Apple’s recent (and admittedly small) market-share gains petered out and Microsoft actually recorded a tiny gain in its userbase. Only Android’s growth rate seems unaffected.
Gartner Research, which is generally very conservative and kind to market incumbents, has said it thinks consumers “in mature markets” (whatever that means) have essentially stopped buying dumbphones in favor of low-end Android handsets. Could it be that we’re also passing out of the era that smartphone platforms can grow without directly taking on each other?
I’ve written before that I wasn’t expecting that transition until mid-3Q2011…but on the unusual occasions that I’ve gone wrong in forecasting this market it has generally been by getting the direction of change right but underestimating the pace. It might be that Android, Apple, Microsoft, and RIM are now entering scorpions-in-a-bottle time.
If so, the likely outcome is the same as we’ve seen in other technology markets with strong network externalities. There can be only one…major incumbent. A whale, with a minnow or two in its shadow. Maybe Android should invert the Twitter fail whale into a success cetacean?