An epitaph on the HP TouchPad
by Daniel Rasmus
August 19, 2011 — I was supposed to write a review of the HP TouchPad, but like so many others this morning, I am writing its epitaph. HP's decision on August 18, 2011 to cease production of the TouchPad as well as other WebOS devices leaves WebOS in limbo, though HP may try to recoup some of its investment by selling WebOS to another company. This is as much a strategic move as it is a technology one. HP has shifted direction to distance itself from the consumer market. After spending time with the TouchPad I think there remains room in the market for another worthy competitor to iOS. Android may have momentum, but it also has significant issues that make it inferior to Apple's operating system. Combine that with the uncertainty in the Android market precipitating from Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility and the future of Android is even more uncertain. And of course, the Microsoft/Nokia deal may make Microsoft's Windows platform a contender, but that remains to be seen.
Lessons learned from the HP TouchPad
Regardless of if WebOS continues to exist to not, the HP TouchPad offered some lessons that Microsoft and Android developers, including Google, should heed. Failure is always a teaching moment, but rather than focus on what HP did wrong, I will share my thoughts on what they did right that others can learn from.
A standard connector
I know Apple, Samsung and others want to make money selling proprietary device accessories, but you know, we consumers are a little tired of that. There is no reason that all tablets shouldn't be equipped with a micro-USB connector. It takes up less space and would let owners bring only one cable to synch and charge everything. The TouchPad (like a few Android devices) created an unobtrusive connection to other devices. With a standard connector consumers could buy accessories that would migrate across platforms -- that may not help their accessory profits, but it would certainly reduce the costs of external components and accessories for consumers, which in this economy, is a good thing even for what many might consider luxury goods.
The HP TouchPad can be carried without portable speakers. The sound performance from its speakers is very good for a device of this size, which is a complement to the Beats audio integration. External audio is an issue for Apple. The partnership with Beats and the association with Dr. Dre is cool, but it isn't exclusive, because HTC has now inked a deal with Beats as well (perhaps Apple should have a chat with Bose).
Apple always touts is MagSafe technology for its MacBooks, but the iPad is firmly connected to a cable for charging. The TouchPad's stand introduced standard inductive charging to the tablet market, and I think that was brilliant. It would have been more brilliant if the stand came standard in the box so owners would perhaps only need to use traditional cable-based charging when on the road -- but if the TouchPad persevered, I'm sure an inductive travel charger was in the works from someone (and the HP one folds up pretty small and creates a stand, so they might argue they already shipped an inductive travel charger). The next innovation should be complete wireless synching and file transfer, which is kind of available on the TouchPad if you want to use up your DropBox allocation for music and movies. I would rather see a standard PC/Mac/Cloud interface that makes sharing copy protected, their licenses and personal files easily synchronized over WiFi.
Unlike Android's sometimes confusing, always seemingly messy interface, the WebOS makes sense. And like the iOS, it is (was) controlled by one company so it would most likely not devolve into a bunch of dissimilar implementations filled with crapware and bloatware. That control even allowed for the integration of third-party tools, like Skype, into a rational integrate service, rather than one driven by individual apps.
The WebOS offered simple access to calendar, contacts and e-mail, and world-class integration with existing platforms, including Microsoft Exchange. Eventually this could have been the link between the TouchPad and HP's enterprise aspirations, as Apple still has skeptics about Apple's ability to adequately serve the security needs of the corporate world, and the questionable future of RIM, both as a platform and a company.
On the Adobe Flash battle front, I found HP's implementation much more fluid that Android's. Websites using Flash look and behave pretty much like they do on a PC. Google and its partners need to spend more time making the Flash experience live up to their marketing hype.
Although HP's App Catalog isn't filled with all of the goodies found in Apple's app store, it was well presented and well integrated. Unfortunately, HP chose to ship the TouchPad with beta versions of Kindle and QuickOffice (read-only), which reinforced the perception that the platform wasn't ready for primetime.
Overall, the user experience, from the card metaphor for open, multitasking apps, to the "just type" entry at the top of the screen that did its best to interpret user intent and the uncluttered environment would probably have won some adherents if not in this hardware incarnation, perhaps in the next one.
A little advice
This all boils down to some advice for current and future tablet makers:
Probably not much new here, but it bears repeating as it seems few of the Tablet makers have headed this advice if they have heard it before.
- If your device isn't as light or lighter than an iPad, then don't ship it
- If your device's performance isn't as fast or faster than the iPad, then don't ship it
- Don't ship with beta Software—any kind of beta software
- Inspire developers to create great apps that make the platform a valuable tool. Looks at the top downloads (free and pay) on iOS and if you don't have a strong category leader to compete, concentrate on recruiting one
- Provide good sound. Don't make people buy external speakers.
- Deliver a user experience that is clean, simple and rational
- Use a standard connector
- Offer wireless charging
- Make Wifi/wireless synchronization standard
- Design tablets as standalone devices, not PC/Mac accessories
TouchPad lessons from Hollywood
HP canceled the TouchPad like a television network cancels a new fall show running opposite Monday Night Football before the audience could figure out what time to watch, let alone if they liked the show or not. Television shows that do get a second chance can just tweak the premise, hire another star, introduce another character, shift locations or revamp the set in a matter of days, and the results are seen within a couple of weeks.
Unfortunately HP would need to spend millions of dollars to reengineer and retool, and it would be months or a year before anything new hit the market. Revamping a technology platform is much more like rebooting a tired entertainment franchise. It needs to be reimagined from the inside out, and sometimes that works, and sometimes that doesn't. Although audiences often complain about Hollywood's lack of original ideas, they do invest huge amounts of money and take enormous risk to reboot a franchise. Just this week it was announced that little known Warner Brothers partner Alcon Entertainment was funding 73-year old Ridley Scott to create either a prequel or sequel to 1982's disappointing-cum-cult-class Blade Runner. That is a risky move on many levels. If WebOS does end up with another reboot, it needs to be a meticulously detailed and as lovingly re-crafted as JJ Abram's Star Trek universe. Anything short of that would be a waste of time.
And what the somewhat chunky HP Touchpad couldn't run from was the fact that it didn't out-style the competition. It was a bit heavy and a little slow. If you don't get the cosmetics right for the role, nobody's going to spend time figuring out if you can act or not.
A final thought
As a strategist I both understand HP's move and I am disappointed by it.
It makes strategic sense to focus on a high margin growth business like enterprise software and services—it makes sense to rally the troops around a common comprehensible theme, to avoid distraction and to concentrate on execution.
I am disappointed because this is another example of a company shying away from risk and innovation. Apple just became the most highly valued company in America because it combined risk with innovation, and it did so in the consumer market. It will be interesting to see if either Google or Microsoft has the stomach for risk as they play with their patent portfolios. And Apple is playing that game now too with Samsung. This nascent market needs a good battle, hopefully one that takes place on the shelves of retailers with innovative products going head-to-head rather than in courtrooms where winning may mean ultimately loosing what you should be fighting for.
Daniel W. Rasmus is an independent analyst and strategy consultant. He is a former Vice President at the Giga Information Group and Forrester Research. Dan is the author of five books, including Management by Design (Wiley, 2010) and Listening to the Future (Wiley 2008). He blogs regularly at http://danielwrasmus.wordpress.com. Additional information can be found at http://danielwrasmus.com.