Here's a famous quote that sums up the reaction to yesterday's surprise announcement by HP to stop supporting webOS, and, by extension, the TouchPad tablet, as well as get out of the PC business, courtesy of the classic 1968 film, The Planet of the Apes: "YOU MANIACS! YOU BLEW IT UP! OH, DAMN YOU! GODDAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!". We all knew that Hewlett-Packard CEO Leo Apotheker was a software guy, we just didn't realize that meant he'd pull the rug out from under consumers and do a dramatic IBM-style business shift. At least we can still buy their printers, right? ... Anyone?
This affects me personally, because I was working on TouchPad For Dummies, which would have been my third book for 2011, to go along with the recently released, Motorola ATRIX For Dummies, and the upcoming, My Xbox: Kinect, Xbox 360, and Xbox LIVE. While these events are much bigger than me and others will be affected far more dramatically, I thought I would still give my personal impressions, starting first with a little background on the book stuff, some discussion of the TouchPad itself, and then get a bit more into an analysis of the present situation within the industry.
I started work on Motorola ATRIX For Dummies first, a book I co-authored with Dan Gookin. That had approximately a four week write cycle. Before that was done, my wife Christina and I got the deal to work on My Xbox: Kinect, Xbox 360, and Xbox LIVE, which we started work on as work on the ATRIX book was winding down. That was just over a two month write cycle. As author edits were in full swing on that book, Christina and I began work on TouchPad For Dummies, which had roughly a six to eight week write cycle. Though our initial going was slow, our production speed was just about to maximum levels and we ended up completing about 50% of the work literally right around the hour of HP's unfortunate and entirely unexpected announcement.
I really feel like a snake-bit author sometimes. I take great pride in the work that I do, and sometimes my output is slower than it should be because of it. As such delivery, the end result, is very important to me. As such, I really do pour my heart and soul into every project. I got my first book deal I think around 2006 or 2007, but that didn't work out in the end due to a combination of factors, a good portion of which was my own naivety to the organization and work required to get one of these things done. Vintage Games with Matt Barton followed, a book that I'm very happy with and among the last pure videogames books from a mainstream publisher. With that said, we weren't aware of the publisher's page count, so we ended up creating more chapters than could possibly fit in the book without realizing it. Those became our famous bonus chapters. The next book was Wii Fitness For Dummies with Christina, which originally was Wii Fit For Dummies until Nintendo announced that game's successor. We were at least 3/4's of the way through that version of the book when we essentially had to scrap it all and make it the three fitness game book that became Wii Fitness For Dummies. After that was the three book sequence I described for 2011. Motorola ATRIX For Dummies went very smoothly. As for My Xbox: Kinect, Xbox 360, and Xbox LIVE, again, bad timing for Christina and me with Microsoft's announcement of a major new update this fall, right after we started work. So, in addition to completing the book to this point, we'll have to do some major revisions to incorporate all the update stuff before the book is considered complete and ready for release the second time. Again, I'm very lucky to be doing what I do in my spare time, so no real complaints, but it does get frustrating when you do all that work and then have to do it all over again! And don't get me started on the documentary...
So, with all that out of the way, what do I think of the TouchPad tablet itself? Prior to taking receipt of the TouchPad, my ownership experience with tablets started and ended with the iPad 2, which happened after a long time waiting for the Android side of the equation to never get its act together. For those who don't already know, the iPad 2 is thin, light and stable, giving competitive efforts some serious hurdles to overcome. Unfortunately, the TouchPad that HP released is the equivalent to the body type and styling of the iPad 1, which makes it seem downright clunky and outdated in comparison to the iPad 2. There were also strange omissions, like no rear-facing camera and no memory card slot or USB port, all signs of a product targeted to older competition. HP apparently wasn't nimble enough - or perhaps willing to invest the time and money - to rework their tablet prior to release. As for that release, it was months too late. If it hit a few months BEFORE the iPad 2 came out, it would have looked very attractive, particularly because the OS is so nice.
As for TouchPad's operating system, webOS, to me, that was always its trump card and what would enable it to succeed, NOT this first generation hardware that it ran on. The multi-tasking was elegant and effective, and the ability to flick and toss information and screens at will - particularly screens to close them - was inspired. In fact, I still find myself wanting to flick up on the bottom of my iPad 2's screen to close an app!
HP's announcement does not only effect their tablet strategy, but also their phone strategy. We kept hearing about how these webOS-based phones were coming "soon", but they clearly weren't ready, because "soon" is now never. Frankly even if they did see release a month or two back, it probably wouldn't have mattered anyway in terms of the monumental lead Android and iOS smartphones have. Again, for this strategy to pay off for HP, they would have had to have gotten these products out early in 2011, if not sooner. Time was always working against them, and I think it's time that ultimately did them in. With that said, I still never expected HP to give up this early, and as an author of what would have been the first major book on the TouchPad, I'm disappointed HP didn't try to stick with it, because I thought that even with the delays they could have righted the ship (though likely never on the phone side).
I'm reading lots of demands on the Web from early adopters of the TouchPad who want their money back. Even though their TouchPads will continue to work and surely HP will continue to provide a minimal level of support for the product for a predetermined time period, they're absolutely right in their request. I agree that HP should do right by its customers and take the hit, at minimum either by giving some type of significant rebate back or other credit. Something, anything, but definitely dramatic. These were people who believed in webOS enough to take a chance on the product, even though few others seemed willing to. HP themselves talked big, big as in an entire webOS product line, including incorporation into their now-defunct-as-well PCs. As an act of goodwill, if HP wants to be taken seriously in the business software world, they have to find a way to at least pacify customers on the consumer side of the equation, even though outside of their printers, they've all but given up on them. How they act in the aftermath of blowing all this up I think will go a long way towards determining how smoothly their new path is paved.
I think there's a big lesson in all this, that if you want to compete in the tablet and smartphone space and you're not affiliated with Google or Apple, you're going to fail unless you have something DRAMATICALLY better to offer at launch. Now, as for competition in this space, all we really can take seriously are the aforementioned Google and Apple, as well as Microsoft, who themselves are right on the periphery of being too late to the game to make them a viable third option. By all accounts, Windows Phone 7 is great, but it's having a hard time gaining any traction. If Microsoft can leverage Nokia's expertise in the low end phone market while still maintaining proper compatibility with higher end Windows Phone 7 devices, I think they'll stand a chance. If Microsoft happens to purchase Rim and put the core Blackberry stuff on Windows Phone 7 to make it enterprise-friendly - really Rim's only remaining appeal - then I think they might be that truly viable third option we've been hoping for to keep the other two honest. With that said, Microsoft is going to be incredibly late to the next generation tablet game, and, outside of being an enterprise tablet, they're going to have an extraordinarily difficult time making an impact with consumers. At least there's a good chance Microsoft will stick with the strategy, and certainly Windows 8 itself, which will power the tablet experience as well as the more traditional computer formats, will not be going anywhere. Of course that also begs the question of why there are no forthcoming Windows Phone 7 tablets since that operating system would be ideal on a larger screen, but a strategy is a strategy (theirs being that tablets are still PCs), and at least Microsoft seems to have a semblance of one.
The big winner in all this continues to be Apple, who grows ever more powerful and profitable. They gambled correctly on what form the smartphone should take. They gambled correctly on what a tablet computer should be. Google is beating Apple in volume on the smartphone side and may be able to make at least an impact on the tablet side with the same strategy, but there's still no proof that it will work out the same. Maybe it really is an iPad market, not a tablet market. With that said, at least Google has horses in the race and they're clearly not going anywhere, which will surely count for something, particularly as they continue to mimick Apple's strategy. For instance, "ice cream sandwich" unifying smartphone and tablet operating systems the same way iOS unifies Apple's smartphone, tablets, and media players.
The rise of smartphones and tablets have not only affected the traditional mobile markets, but also has been quite disruptive in two other areas, one of which is rather unexpected. The first area is dedicated gaming handhelds like Nintendo's 3DS and Sony's upcoming Vita. We knew those were never going to reach the sales heights of their predecessors as there's too much competition from smartphones and tablets that can provide sufficiently compelling gaming experiences while doing all the other stuff those devices are best at. The second area is a bit more suprising and that's the impact on the PC market. We all know traditional form factors, like desktops and laptops, won't go away, but they certainly won't be the de facto options anymore. The writing is on the wall and now that smartphones and tablets are capable enough for most people's needs, the role of the traditional computer form factor becomes less important, and, eventually, unecessary. Intel's creation of the "ultrabook" spec and HP's dramatic exit from the low margin personal computer business are just two of many recent examples.
As for my next book project, there are some proposals under serious consideration, but I really don't know what will come to pass. Right now, I'm going to enjoy some much needed "fun time," and work with Christina on finishing off the Xbox 360 book once we have access to the updates.
Finally, I'd like to wish those HP workers who will be affected by this announcement all the best. We were in contact with some of the employees over there prior to and during the creation of the TouchPad book and they were class acts all the way. Good luck, guys!