Setting a Straw-man Argument on Fire

Now that HP is “exploring options” for webOS, speculation has run rampant about the future of webOS. Some ideas are thoughtful, others well-meaning but boneheaded, and then some are oddly malicious posts that seem to be actively hoping for webOS’s death (I’m guessing these people also hate adorable puppies, sunshine, and their father, but I digress).

There’s one argument against the desirability of webOS for future partners that I want to address in particular because, as with many wrong ideas, it seems quite reasonable on first glance. It has appeared in a handful of places, and I won’t quote any directly, but the argument is along the lines of:

Why should any company be confident making hardware for HP’s webOS when HP itself isn’t confident enough in webOS to make hardware for it?

Seems pretty reasonable, right? Well, no.

The problem with this argument is that it presumes if something is not optimal for one company to do, it’s not optimal for any company to do. If HP contracts with an external catering company to run the employee cafeteria, does that mean catering isn’t a viable business? Of course not. It just means that HP knows where it can best focus its limited amount of time, money, and corporate focus, and running the kitchen and cash register is not among them. It is far better to leave it to a company that lives and breaths catering, which will always be able to deliver a better product at a lower price. Or there is the fact that the most popular OS in the world (Windows) comes from a company that doesn’t make its hardware. Does that mean Microsoft never had any confidence in Windows? No, it means they knew their strength was software (clearly) and they should leave making the boxes to companies that live and breathe sourcing operations and sales.

It’s the same deal for mobile hardware. While there are always exceptions, new state-of-the-art hardware comes at a fast and furious pace from a variety of world-class manufacturers in Asia. They live and breathe hardware, going from conceptual design to manufacturing and shipping at incredible speeds, and every part of those companies staff structure and corporate culture drive them to do it even better the next day. It would require an enormous investment of time and money to try and match the Asian giants in hardware manufacturing prowess, and with no certainty of success

(it’s also worth noting that the corollary of this is also true–the hardware giants all suck at software)

HP just realized it can do a better job with webOS if the webOS team laser-focuses on just that–webOS–and leaves other people to live and breathe the hardware on which it will run.

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6 thoughts on “Setting a Straw-man Argument on Fire

  1. Great post, John. I’ve always enjoyed your take on webOS (I refuse to call it The WebOS). However, to counter your argument here I’d like to point out that the personal systems group hasn’t had a problem developing hardware for its laptops and desktops – in fact, quite the contrary – so why is this so different in the mobile sector? Case in point: the Pre3. Seems that Palm / HP nailed it finally but yet THIS is the product that they decide not to mass produce. Seems the problem isn’t necessarily in “keeping up with the Asians” as it is HP making some extremely questionable decisions surrounding webOS as a whole. I think *this* is what validates the argument of “Why should any company be confident making hardware for HP’s webOS”. No one trusts HP right now. I can’t say I blame them either.

    If HP can prove (and this is a big if) that it has a clear plan for webOS then by all means, please prove the naysayers wrong.

    • I completely agree with you Roger. While I have nothing against HP licensing webOS, quite the opposite, I was weeping into my pillow endless nights, longing for webOS running on HTC/Sammy hardware, I just cannot make myself believe that anyone would be interested in licensing it from HP anymore, not after Mr. Leo “The Marathon Man” Apotheker has proven himself not being trustworthy, quite a few times. And I just do not really believe he is that much interested in investing in webOS further, it just doesn’t seem so, the execution of that whole earning call communication and immediately following “reorg” was so crude, it was basically a sentence, IMHO. Of course they’ll keep waffling about “oiptimizing shareholder value”, and “exploring options for webOS”, but I don’t know, if you are working for Corporate America long enough to be able to read between the lines of this kind of statements? Basically, if all they have to say is quite meaningless mumbling (and it was all like that since Palm’s acquisition, bar “Think Beyond” event), it doesn’t bode well at all.

      Nor I believe that this unfocused and all over the place leadership will let you battle Android/iOS/WP7 (maybe even RIM) teams effectively. They are all steaming ahead (with their drawbacks, limitations and all), and that momentum is something that would be very, very difficult to battle in the marketplace, without enormous investments in marketing (the bigger, the more leadership/communication blunders HP will keep making along the way), something that HP is apparently unwilling to do – who will, in this case? Especially, how much more marketing/developer relationships/evangelization dollars would be needed to cover for all the leadership blunders that HP was making for how long?

      Next, your argument as Windows being the most popular OS on the planet, despite MS not making hardware themselves:
      First, Windows has EVOLVED into it’s today’s position, historically, and the mobile market is in totally different shape and condition, than PC market ever was. It is OEMs who decide what OS install on their hardware, and not the end users, together with carrieres (by and large), and it is extremely unlikely to change.
      Secondly, I can buy ANY hardware I want, and install Windows on it (or indeed, MacOS these days, to a large degree). Boy, if I only could do the same with my HTC Desire S or Samsung Galaxy S2!
      Third. the beauty of webOS was to a large degree it’s beautifully integrated ergonomics, something so much different from a generic experience of Android – Android hardware, even if someone managed to port webOS on top of it, just doesn’t have things like touch area, TouchStone coils, portrait sliders, etc.

      I am really sad for all that, despite seeing HP making all the possible mistakes and then some more since Palm’s purchase, I was still clinging to the hope of them staying in the game long enough, to let webOS truly shine, DESPITE all their efforts. Pre 3 would be the gamechanger, if released instead of Veer – my GOSH, everyone seemed to know that, everyone but HPalm decision makers…

  2. I’ve been a huge fan of WebOS since June 6 2009 (release date for the original Palm Pre, which I’m still using!). I agree with your viewpoint on the situation of hardware vs software. However your scenario obviously only becomes true if they make some sort of deal to license WebOS; otherwise it will die a slow death. I literally salivated at the recent Samsung rumors (now dispelled). HP has proven they’ll make decisions that please the shareholders, not the consumer (it’s possible to do both, but HP couldn’t). In my opinion there’s not much of a chance HP will woo the right people with a licensing deal. I hope I’m wrong. Now I’m forced to say thanks WebOS for the last 2.5 years of the best smartphone OS I’ve used, and farewell.

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