An Open Letter To HP Palm's Jon Rubinstein

jon rubinstein

So the HP-Palm Think Beyond event is now passed, and I’m really excited about webOS. Always have been. You’re one of the few companies out there who can match the Apple experience, and that’s because your software is refined and user-friendly; tied tightly to your hardware.

Just like Apple, you make the software and the hardware. It’s not about quantity of devices like Microsoft, et al. plays, it’s about just a few devices: you offer the best of what you can produce, and consumers have simplified product options. 

Nokia, are you listening?

I’ve got a couple Reallys? to throw at you though.

What was one of the main messages of the event? It’s that you’re following a business strategy such that you’re marketing your flagship smartphone, the Pre 3, to business professionals.

Today, we’re introducing a smartphone [the Pre 3] for professionals… finally, a phone you can use for business that you don’t want to leave at work.”

You’re presumably following this strategy because you’re trying to side-step iOS and Android, both of which have a large share of the ‘consumer’ smartphone market. And both of which haven’t really marketed themselves to ‘businesses’ in the way that, for instance, RIM has. You feel it’s been all about the ‘consumer’ for these guys. By differentiating yourself like this, you think that you’ll be able to root yourself into a niche market – the business market – and partially avoid competing directly with Apple and Google with your flagship smartphone.

Then you’ve got your Veer for consumers.


What you’re in fact doing is limiting yourself and it’s going to mean, in the end, lost marketshare. 10 years ago, like when the Palm Treo was first being introduced, this was a good strategy to follow. It was, in fact, mobile professionals who were using early smartphones. But today, the convergence of business and consumer technology has overlapped to such a high degree that the two are virtually indistinguishable. There really isn’t a difference between a ‘business’ smartphone and a ‘consumer’ smartphone; or a ‘business’ tablet and a ‘consumer’ tablet for that matter.  

Thanks to multitouch operating systems, smartphones are general purpose mobile computers now. This has erased the ‘business professional’ target market all together. It doesn’t exist anymore because these general purpose devices bend and flex for each user’s needs in ways almost unimaginable 10 years ago.

A smartphone is now a commonplace device – an information appliance – in pretty much everybody’s hands. Approximately three hundred million smartphones were sold in 2010, which is 70% of the total number of mobile phones sold worldwide in 2002, the year the first Palm Treo smartphone was released. 

If we believe all the hype, tablets will follow the success of smartphones.

How has the market reacted? Enterprises, for instance, are opting for iPads and iPhones in droves. But these devices are primarily marketed to consumers. Apple hasn’t put much effort into marketing and selling to businesses. The secret sauce is that these devices simply sell themselves, and the Apple Stores help that along. So what’s the result? Apple gets the most possible marketshare by making great products and letting those products sell themselves. And ‘business professionals’ can use these ‘consumer’ products because they can simply download a set of Apps that makes them ‘business’ phones.

Also, by marketing your flagship smartphone to ‘business professionals’, you paint a picture across all of your mobile devices such that, consumers should stay ‘out’. It presents an image of ‘closed off’ and ‘too serious’. But that’s not really an accurate depiction of webOS. webOS is one of the most user-friendly, ‘cute’ mobile operating systems of any. So there’s a bit of a mismatch between your marketing and what’s really at the heart of your technology.

What’s more, by marketing to the mythical business professional, you now face RIM, a well established, mobile technology company marketing itself to enterprise. While at one time ahead, RIM has begun to take a back seat to Apple and Android in terms of worldwide smartphone marketshare

If all of this isn’t a clarion call to not go there, I don’t know what is.

Already the consumer is confused because of the ‘serious business’ image you’ve painted with the Pre 3, and with earlier devices like the Palm Pixi, a re-purposed, ‘traditional Blackberry’. But the Veer reminds me of the Microsoft Kin in its form, a device that had abysmal sales. The Microsoft Kin was actually marketed to teenagers. As your lone ‘consumer’ smartphone, the Veer has left me scratching my head. At the very least, the small screen size is a disservice to webOS. In keeping with your marketing speak, as your primary ‘consumer smartphone’, it just seems too limiting.

My point is that I don’t think this current strategy of bifurcating your latest smartphones in order to service an imaginary target market is the best approach. That is, offering something diminutive for consumers and something that’s now status quo in the smartphone space for ‘business professionals’.

Second, a pull-out keyboard


This is 2011. Touchscreen, keyboard-less smartphones are selling like crazy: several of the top smartphones are devoid of a physical keyboard (e.g., the iPhone 4, the Samsung Fascinate and Galaxy S, the HTC EVO 4G, the Motorola Droid, among others). To me, putting a slide-out keyboard onto a multitouch smartphone is like taping a typewriter onto a Bluetooth earpiece. It’s superfluous: it unnecessarily adds complexity and thickness. Moreover, for average-to-above average sized people, it’s challenging to use when it’s so small, like it is on the Veer. And webOS is screaming for a larger-screened, sleek, keyboard-less design

In general, these latest smartphone offerings are essentially just like the first Pre, although the Pre 3 has a larger screen with added power, which is nice. But I’m sure you’re aware of the Pre and Pixi’s sluggish sales that led up to Palm’s sale to HP last year, as well as the complaints about how small the Pre’s keyboard is. So what have you learned from all of this?

I’m not sure, because you’re offering pretty much the exact same things. I’m just glad you didn’t offer an updated Palm Pixi: webOS has no business on a mashed up classic Blackberry form factor.

You see how you’re confusing things with trying to differentiate yourself as a mobile ‘business’ platform in an outright consumer game with a mobile operating system that is general purpose?

What about this. Keep the Veer and Pre going if you’re so intent on it, but also offer a flagship smartphone sans pull-out keyboard. Say, a 4″ high-res screen, a razor thin design, etc. I can’t speak for everyone, but I won’t be buying the Pre 3 because of the pull-out keyboard, or the Veer because it’s too small to use.

Am I a minority? Maybe, but maybe not. I suspect I’m not alone.

And if I’m not buying one of your new smartphones, do you think I’ll buy your tablet? I’m very interested in your tablet, but without an HP-Palm smartphone, it’s not as enticing. 

In closing, you’ve come a long way. From the original Pre hardware issues, to the initial slow roll out of your SDK/PDK, to the iTunes debacle and Palm’s acquisition… But, you’ve got a lot of competition and a huge uphill battle still ahead of you (Android and iOS). There’s all kinds of indicators on the market in regards to what’s working and what’s not. I think you need to retool your strategy.

So overall, in order to make webOS a contender and not a pretender, how about leaving the early days of Palm behind, and focusing on what consumers are buying today. Consumers ‘are’ the business: everyone’s carrying an information appliance now. By dropping your ‘market to businesses’ strategy, and adopting more of a consumer mentality, along with offering a smartphone sans keyboard, you’ll ensure the best possible chance for webOS in the face of intense competition and unprecedented choice.

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