Friday, 19 August 2011

The Part of Palm that Smartphone Companies Should be Bidding For

Anytime a CEO gets ousted in disgrace, his or her pet projects are vulnerable to a quick trip to the gallows if they falter.  Mark Hurd was the CEO who bought Palm, so it was at risk from the moment Hurd left.  HP's mobile device performance had not been good this year -- the Veer smartphone launched and vanished on the same day, and the TouchPad turned out to be a sales disaster.  If Leo Apotheker had chosen to invest further in the business, it would have turned into his responsibility.  It's far easier to just walk away.

You can make an argument that HP should have given the business more time, and it's a shame that we'll never get to see the Pre 3.  But Palm's sales have been troubled for years, and I think its fundamental mistake was that it tried to be too much like Apple.  From the start, Pre was aimed at the same users and the same usages as the iPhone (even down to a failed effort to tie the phone directly to iTunes).  HP proved that most people don't want to buy an incremental improvement to the iPhone that can't run iOS apps.

Then just for kicks, HP went and proved the same point again with the TouchPad.

The lesson to other mobile companies, I think, is that unless you're a low-cost Asian vendor, you need to differentiate from Apple, not draft behind it.

I'd love to see Web OS live on, but the hardware debacle makes that less likely.  As I mentioned the other day, licensees choose an OS because they think it'll generate a lot of unit sales for them.  Since Web OS couldn't do that for HP, who else would want to license it?

If you believe that every smartphone company needs to own its own OS, we ought to see a mad bidding war between LG, HTC, Sony Ericsson, Dell, and maybe Samsung to buy Web OS.  (The loser could get RIM as a consolation prize.)  Maybe a buyout will still happen, but I think HP has probably been quietly shopping Web OS for a while, and if there were interest it would have tried to close a deal before today's announcement.

(By the way, HTC, if you do buy Web OS, you should insist that HP give you the Palm brand name as well.  It's still far better known than the HTC brand in the US.  The same logic applies for LG.)

But I'm not persuaded that buying an OS is the right way to go for any smartphone company.  Turning yourself into a second-class imitation of Apple isn't a winning strategy, especially if your company doesn't know how to manage an operating system.  (Case in point, look what it did to HP.)  You can create great mobile systems without controlling the OS; all you need is a great system development team and the freedom to put a software layer on top of whatever OS you use.

That means the real crown jewel in the Web OS business unit is the system development people -- the product managers and engineers -- that HP just threw in the garbage.  In my opinion, that's the part of Palm that smartphone companies should be fighting for.

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