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H-P’s TouchPad, WebOS killed — and Apple is the main suspect

Hewlett-Packard executives Todd Bradley (right) JRubinstehold from left Palm Veer Palm Pre 3 an HP TouchPad during an announcement San

Hewlett-Packard executives Todd Bradley (right) and Jon Rubinstein hold, from left, a Palm Veer, a Palm Pre 3 and an HP TouchPad during an announcement in San Francisco in February. It turned out to be one of the shorter product launches in history. | AP

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:25AM

My friends, oh, my friends! The things I wrote and then deleted from this column!

Words like “Jerks,” “Twits,” “Paltroons,” and “cowards”! And then, phrases like “four-flushing bastards” and “hapless, needle-necked gutless dimwits”! Gone, all of them.

I can’t, however, delete the thing I Tweeted when I first learned that Hewlett-Packard was killing the TouchPad tablet less than two months after its release and while it was still being advertised and promoted aggressively:

“Apple, you have my blessings to be total [nickname for Richard, plural] about this,” I said. “Go ahead and email pictures of your butts to HP . . . they deserve it.”

No, none of these reactions is appropriate for a technology columnist. But if I had recently purchased a $499 TouchPad, I’d be serving all of that simply as an initial amuse-bouche of diatribe . . . while preparing to dump massive amounts of spit, bile, venom, and other unspeakable bodily fluids into HP’s appetizer and entreé rounds.

For what HP has done to consumers . . . oh, yes, they deserve it. There are people who excitedly bought a TouchPad on the very first day it was released in their countries, and then became orphans less than 48 hours later. That’s just wrong.

I’m hugely disappointed that HP never gave the TouchPad a chance to find its legs. But it might have been the only sensible choice available to them. The trouble was that there were just so damned few TouchPad buyers to screw over. This week, AllThingsD reported that since the TouchPad’s US launch on July 1, only 25,000 of the 270,000 units HP shipped to Best Buy had sold - and that figure didn’t even include the number of products that had been returned. And so, in their quarterly earnings call on Thursday, HP announced that they were “shutting down WebOS hardware” (meaning, no more TouchPad and no more WebOS phones), bringing to an end a two-year saga in which the new mobile OS won lots of fans and earned surprising respect, but had never found its Oprah Moment.

HP did leave the door open to licensing WebOS to third-party phone and tablet makers.

And I bet if some CTO phoned HP’s main switchboard (800-752-0900) and indicated that his company wanted to talk about maybe buying that whole unit outright, he or she would be put on hold and wouldn’t have to listen to more than one verse of “Baby I’m A Want You” before speaking to an over-excited member of senior management.

But I’d be shocked if that happened.

Computers are supported by a four-legged stool. You need great hardware and reliable, relevant OS. The third leg is a developer community. Without those men and women, your computer has no software and it can’t respond to the changing needs of your users. With them, you can balance on three legs long enough to attract a user base, which completes the stability of your new platform.

At this point, developers consider WebOS to be twice-damaged goods. It was created by Palm and generated a lot of enthusiasm among the developer community, but Palm shanked its debut release and that company never recovered. HP bought Palm and gave WebOS a shower, a shave, and a hot meal. They lauded WebOS as the company’s key to competing in mobile space and they even outlined plans to bake it into just about everything they sold, from laptops and desktops to printers.

In May, HP’s European head Eric Cador even promised that the TouchPad would do better than beat the iPad to become the world’s number one tablet. He said the TouchPad would become “number one plus,” reminding us all that there are many parts of the European Union where hard drugs can be purchased and used openly.

And now HP, too, has teed up WebOS, taken a good swing, and shanked it straight into the weeds. It’s true that a disproportionately high percentage of programmers did keep watching “Heroes” even after its first season finale but overall, they’re not a notoriously dumb species.

It’s a damned shame that the TouchPad is dead because it really was a rather nifty device.

I’d been using a sample for the past two weeks and was preparing a mixed, but overall optimistic and positive, review.

The TouchPad made me think about all of the 2011 tablets as though they were bands playing cover versions of music that had been made famous by the iPad.

The BlackBerry PlayBook, I reckoned, was like a public school chorus rendition of “Ring Of Fire.” It was audacious and they threw themselves into it with a charm and an energy that’s hard not to like, but you wouldn’t call it professional-grade stuff. All of the Android tablets put together were like lounge singers working their way through Frank Sinatra’s and Tony Bennett’s and Ella Fitzgerald’s hits. They could copy the notes of the original, mostly, but it’s clear that they in no way understood the music. And overall, the experience leaves you with a deeper appreciation of the sophistication and mastery of the one who made this thing famous in the first place.

I was determined to compare the TouchPad to the Sex Pistols’ version of “My Way.”

Yes, I promise you I was.

HP could no more distance the TouchPad from the iPad than Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious could distance that song from Frank Sinatra. Their work would not, could not have existed without the original to serve as a template. But throughout the WebOS/TouchPad experience, I saw, in flourish after flourish, places where an engineer looked at some element of the iPad and thought “That’s great, but what if we did it like this instead?”

A blow-by-blow review would be a waste of your time and mine. Still, I can’t help but compliment WebOS’ engineers on creating a UI that was easy to figure out and which made sense as an integrated unit.

The device itself felt a little cheap, compared both to the iPad and the Motorola Xoom.

But that’s kind of HP’s schtick. By and large, they aren’t in the business of making premium hardware. A company that once was known for rock-solid products was chased by competition into building ‘em cheap and shipping them in huge volume.

Still, I initially couldn’t recommend that people buy it. At its original $499 list price, I was going to award the TouchPad a “nice try.” You can’t compete with the iPad by selling something not as good for the same price.

HP quickly cut the list price down to $399 and the thing immediately got interesting.

Then it became clear that shrewd shoppers could combine deals and coupons and get it for under $350 and that’s when the TouchPad became verrry interesting. Any halfway-decent color 10” multitouch tablet with a great mail app, a web browser, the Kindle app, and even a bare assortment of third-party apps is highly competitive. The key was going to be for the TouchPad to compete with the Amazon Kindle instead of the iPad.

But those things only point to the reasons behind HP’s dramatic and surprising announcements on Thursday. The WebOS news wasn’t just a lone afterthought amongst piles of stultifying performance figures. Chloroforming the TouchPad was just one step in HP’s newly declared determination to get out of the hardware business.

Yes, even their desktop and notebook businesses. It’s likely that HP will either sell their hardware interests or spin them off as an independent business unit as opposed to actually killing those lines off, but the mere fact that HP no longer wants to be synonymous with PC hardware underscores the scope of the changes they’re making to the company.

It’s a simple case of keeping the parts of the business that are making the most money and which have the clearest future and paring away the rest. In recent years, HP has been buying businesses that have proven to be far more lucrative than Palm. The good buys haven’t been the ones that make services, not products. Companies like EDS, bought in 2008, and Autonomy Corp., which violated some rule of logic by agreeing to a ten billion dollar acquisition this quarter, point the way: here in the post-PC world, HP wants to be more like IBM was back in the pre-PC days. They want to be a huge company that provides data services to other huge companies.

They certainly don’t want to be the number one volume builder of laptops any more. Not when the only way they can compete in that cutthroat business is by selling them at atomically thin profit margins. The iPad only increased the pain for makers of cheap PCs: it’s demonstrably bled away an important hunk of the market for inexpensive computers. Unlike a $399 laptop that you can twist between your hands, a $499 iPad is sleek, modern, sexy, and extremely well-made.

HP announced that they’d be writing off their entire inventory of TouchPads as a $100,000,000 loss. It’s certainly possible that these 250,000 TouchPads will start hitting the market at fire sale prices. If I thought the TouchPad was very interesting at $350, I’d consider them fascinating at $250 and a compelling bargain at anything under $200. Assuming that they continue to work with existing apps and they never need critical bugfixes.

All in all, the death of WebOS and even HP’s desire to get out of the hardware business has to be scored as Apple’s kill. HP is only the latest company to learn, through deep, septic wounds and multiple compound fractures, that there is no market for tablet computers. There’s only consumer demand for the iPad. And although the so-called “Apple tax” is a very real thing and it’s a serious impediment for many consumers, one moral of HP’s story is that it’s probably healthier for a company to sell premium, unique hardware at a high markup than to keep chasing lower and lower prices.

The only Apple news of 2011 that hasn’t been about record quarterly profits, their inability to manufacture iPads fast enough to meet demand, or some kind of lawsuit has been about the new Magic Spaceship the company’s erecting in Cupertino. Apple’s been so successful over the past ten years that they’ve outgrown their existing campus. So they’re building a new intergalactic headquarters, in the shape of an enormous glass ring, in a newly-planted forest. This One True Ring will be large enough to host 13,000 employees. Apple’s not closing down their original Cupertino campus, though; they need as much room as they can get.

The Ring will sit partly on a 98-acre parcel of land that Apple bought from Hewlett-Packard last year, after they demolish all of the buildings. HP no longer needed the space.

(Yeah, that was a cheap shot. But I’m still peeved that 25,000 TouchPad buyers just got screwed.)

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