HP makes webOS open source – Apple style vertical integration doesn’t work all the time

Earlier, I wrote a post pondering whether or not Apple could or should license out its software. Little did I know that only a few short hours later I’d be inundated with news proclaiming that HP was giving up on making webOS open source.

Initially Palm created the Pre and webOS to co-exist, but complaints about hardware, no marketing and no carrier or app developer support meant its fate was sealed far too quickly. Figuring it could make a tidy profit from the Linux-based OS, HP snapped it up and released the TouchPad, Pre 3 and Veer. Due to past failings and virtually no carrier support again, it failed to take off. Only 48 days after the TouchPad was released, Hewlett Packard announced it was killing off webOS devices.

Today, the announcement came that many were hoping for – webOS isn’t completely dead, it will be available “open source”. This means any manufacturer can design handsets around it, and HP will continue to develop it. So, the chiefs decided that Apple-style vertical integration wasn’t best fit for this platform. It makes you wonder why it works so well for one company, but is failing miserably with virtually all the others. Even RIM with its BlackBerry hardware and software is in something of a free fall. Cupertino is the only company excelling at this strategy.

I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a Pre 3, having preordered it SIM-free the day it became available in the UK. The problem I felt was that there was a certain lack of effort, some cutting corners in the design of both the OS and the device itself. The display – although of pretty decent resolution – was cheap, and once every now and then a few pixels would die, and come back to life. The gesture-based control was a stroke of genius, and is still my favorite way to use a device, but the old-fashioned icons and lack of sharpness meant you couldn’t quite take it seriously. Even the font wasn’t quite right. It’s best not to get started on the lack of apps for webOS. Something’s seriously wrong if your platform doesn’t even have an official Twitter app.

The point is this: HP failed because they didn’t care enough. Apple’s success over the years is down to Steve Jobs’ perfectionist ways. He’s taught the design and engineering team down in Cupertino to care about the tiniest of details. From the shading of the yellow “O” in the Google app’s logo, to the position of the internal components. From the type of display used, to the positioning of the number in the calendar app. Apple’s manufacturing plants have production lines that far exceed the length of its nearest competitors due to the intense and almost excessive amount of parts and quality checks. Apple cares.

The thing that struck me most about Steve Jobs’ biography when I read it recently was that his motivation wasn’t to make lots of money. He wanted to make better products. Everything has to be better than what’s on the market. (Better of course is a subjective term.) HP just wanted to make something. There was no ambition, no drive and no attention to detail. When you try to make a vertically integrated product, you have to care about it all, in order for it to work. Now Hewlett-Packard has essentially said “we don’t care, if you want to use it, you can.”

My problem with this clear lack of vision and commitment is that other manufacturers will pick up on that and be hesitant to invest any time, energy or money into making a success out of something that HP clearly wasn’t bothered that much about. With Android and WP7 building up some strong partners, webOS doesn’t stand a chance. It’s a shame, since it has such potential, but I can’t see anything coming of this move.

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