TouchPad, WebOS doomed from the start

Brian X. Chen, writing for the New York Times, explains how H.P.’s TouchPad — more precisely, WebOS — was doomed from the start. As Chen points out, it sold for a mere seven weeks before H.P. removed it. I was surprised and disappointed. When H.P. bought Palm and WebOS, I figured it had a winning combination. Like Apple, H.P. would control the hardware and the software. The software, however, was a problem from the start.

“From concept to creation, WebOS was developed in about nine months, this person said, and the company took some shortcuts. With a project like this, programmers typically start by creating the equivalent of building blocks that can be reused and combined to create different applications. But with WebOS, Palm employees initially constructed each app from scratch. Later, they made such blocks, but they were overhauled once by Palm and then again by H.P., forcing programmers to relearn how to build WebOS apps.”

Ouch. Consider that by 2009, as Chen points out, large numbers of developers were busily creating apps for iOS and Android. The situation previously described would put a real damper on H.P.’s recruitment efforts. Additionally, the TouchPad was released after Apple’s iPad 2, which provided a snappier OS and overall more pleasant experience. Seven weeks and $3.3 billion dollars later, the TouchPad was gone. The post-cancellation update to firmware 3.0.4 reportedly increased performance significantly, but it was obviously too late.

Again, it’s unfortunate. I owned several Palm devices in the late 90’s and loved all of them. I figured the TouchPad would be a fantastic device. I, and H.P., was wrong.

The HP Slate video

Earlier this week, YouTube user x313xkillax [1. That’s an upstate New York accent if I’ve ever heard one. I’m guessing he’s from the Rome/Utica/Vernon area.] posted this video of what appears to be a HP Slate prototype. I questioned if it was real but the folks at Engadget seem convinced. If so, Apple can rest assured that the iPad is under no immediate threat.

To be fair, it’s a prototype and not necessarily representative of the finished product. With that in mind, let’s explore the video.

The body

This Slate looks like an iPad wearing a case. The textured back features the HP logo and a camera, while the front features a black bezel and glass display. It appears shorter and less wide than the iPad, but also thicker (using the reviewer’s hand for scale).

Five buttons appear along the device’s edge: volume, keyboard, CTRL-ALT-DEL, power and home. They’re ugly and detract from the overall appearance.[2. Yes, the iPad has physical buttons, but you can bet Apple means to change that.] Plus, I wonder how frequently users will accidentally press them. The iPad can be held in any position, and I assume the Slate can as well (we only see it in a single landscape orientation). If so, all of that turning would require careful hand placement. Otherwise, it’s “Oops! I just called up the keyboard.” or “Oops! I just turned the volume down.”

Among the five buttons there are two standouts. The first is the CTRL-ALT-DEL key. At first I found it hilarious. “This machine will freeze up on you,” HP seemed to be saying, “so were going to put this key right here.” I think of the original Nissan Xterra, which came with an integrated first aid kit. “You will hurt yourself and others while driving this car.”

Instead, I think Marco Arment got it right. The CTRL-ALT-DEL key is a regrettable concession:

“This is comical, but the actual likely intention is less fun than killing hung apps: it’s probably to get through the Windows NT-style “Press Ctrl + Alt + Delete to log on” screen, a relic from 1993, which is necessary on tablets presumably because Microsoft’s internal structure, politics, and fragmentation precluded the Tablet PC team from getting the Windows Account Security Or Whatever team to make an exception to this procedure for this edition of Windows 7.”

Also troubling is the keyboard button. To use the software keyboard, you must push this button to produce it. Likewise, you must press it again to put the keyboard away, or else it just sits there, hogging 2/3 of the display area. Why the keyboard can’t appear/disappear as the user taps in and out of text entry fields is a mystery. It’s the same behavior we saw from another Windows-based tablet. Having to produce and dismiss the keyboard every time you want to use it will get old very quickly.

I’ve also got to mention the stickers. PC manufactures feel compelled to slap stickers on their hardware that tout its features and its innards. I’m not the only one who dislikes this practice. At least this Slate’s stickers are silver and blend in with the body.

Finally, I timed the device’s boot time. It took 33.5 seconds for the Slate to go from off to a useable state. My iPad took 21.8 seconds.

The UI

A finger tap places a cursor on the screen. Notice the slight delay between the tap and the cursor’s appearance (you can see gear spin for half a second). Since a touch simply moves a cursor around, you might as well just use a stylus.

The Slate flat-out refuses to scroll three times. Towards the end of the video, the user has already adjusted his behavior to make it work; he uses slow, deliberate strokes to initiate a scroll. Also, note the barely-responsive Internet browser. Can’t wait to get my hands on that sweet piece of software.

Finally, it’s running Windows 7, which is a fine OS, but not suited to this application.

Hopefully things will improve before this thing hits the market. HP recently decided to push this device on the enterprise market and not home users. The latter group will, I assume, benefit from HP’s acquisition of Palm. A tablet running webOS is something I’m eager to see.

This incarnation of the Slate is not.