hPalm and a web-centric strategy

The acquisition battle has come and gone, and it’s HP that’s become Palm’s new owner. In general this news has been greeted with glad cries, despite (or maybe because) it was so unexpected. In general everybody assumes that the marriage of Palm software and HP hardware will be a good one, and that HP will also release a webOS-based tablet device.

However, there’s an interesting dissenting opinion on VisionMobile (a blog I highly recommend, by the way). Guest author Michael Valukenko sees few synergies between Palm and HP, and pinpoints three problems besetting the new hPalm combination:

  1. When compared to Apple, BlackBerry, and Android, webOS has little differentiation; it’s just another smartphone platform in the eyes of consumers, and not the most interesting one. Valukenko does not feel this problem can be solved by pumping more money into marketing (or doing a proper marketing campaign instead of the weird stuff Palm did last year).
  2. A possible differentiation point might be a well-stocked app store, but currently Palm is lacking in that regard, and besides app developers are not interested in developing for yet another platform.
  3. Operators, who want to bring out coveted, well-marketed, popular devices in their high-end smartphone segment, might not be interested in yet another smartphone platform if there not at least some customer demand.

There is a very simple answer to the second problem, and that answer might conceivably solve the first and third problem, too.

That answer is the web.

webOS is based on the web platform; the only way to make native Palm apps is to use HTML, CSS, and JavaScript (well, their Palm dialects, which might be slightly different from the rest, but still).

This will certainly help them attract web developers. It might conceivably interest operators, too, although that’s a much more complex problem. As to consumers, they won’t care about the fact itself, but they could be interested in some nice tricks that are made possible by the web.

Developers

Let’s solve hPalm’s developer problem first. That’s by far the easiest part.

Obviously, mobile developers won’t be too interested in developing for yet another platform. But web developers might be. They haven’t yet embraced any specific platform, and might be very interested in playing with a web-based OS.

I already blogged about the fundamental problem but will repeat myself anyway: everybody wants web technologies, nobody wants web developers. For some curious reason all mobile players are waiting passively for web developers to fall into their laps. Palm was no exception until last September or so — far too late to support the initial release of the Pre.

If hPalm reaches out seriously, it can easily scoop up a whole new set of developers that isn’t yet married to any single platform and that will certainly be interested in taking their web-based talent to mobile.

Dion Almaer and Ben Galbraith are doing what they can as Palm’s developer relations managers, but they were hired too late, and besides I get the distinct feeling that they have to do absolutely everything by themselves. The job is obviously too much even for two hard workers such as Dion and Ben, and to me the surprise is that they booked any results at all.

Now, with HP pouring money into Palm, they might get some help and a serious outreach programme might be started. Besides, work can get started to bring webOS even more in line with the mobile web; most importantly by supporting W3C Widgets, the core technology behind HTML5 apps.

If all this happens, and if the newly-invigorated hPalm makes serious inroads on web developers’ attention, then why, hPalm might find itself winning the hearts and minds of an as-yet unaligned group of developers that already has the technical knowledge to build webOS apps, and has built a thriving blog and conference ecosystem that can serve to reinforce the message.

Oh, and in order to lure even more web developers, hPalm should support device APIs that allow JavaScript access to the accelerometer, geolocation, the camera, and other phone functions. That would be a cool new toy to play with.

Serious outreach to web developers, backed by a serious budget, will solve hPalm’s developer problems overnight.

Consumers

Obviously, the average consumer doesn’t care about the platform his phone runs; he just wants to be able to make voice calls, send text messages, browse the web, and install and use cool apps. The first three requirements are met by any smartphone platform; it’s the fourth where hPalm might run into trouble.

As we saw, the company might be able to find a new group of developers that’s eager and enthusiastic to work with webOS. Still, even if web developers migrate en masse, for the time being hPalm’s app store will remain distinctly behind Android’s, and never mind Apple’s.

So something extra is called for in order to win the hearts and minds of consumers. Might that extra be the ability to share applications with friends even if those friends use another phone? It conceivably might; it has never been tried before.

And here we again come back to HTML5 apps. Eventually, it will be possible to send them to other phones via Bluetooth.

(In fact, I’ve already done so by sending a W3C Widget written for Vodafone’s S60 widget manager to a Windows Mobile 6.5 phone. And it worked. Granted, the process is convoluted and not yet ready for use by consumers, and I had to solve one incompatibility problem, but the functionality is there and will only improve with time.)

Everything that’s really required here is an easy-to-use “send via Bluetooth” option that comes with every hPalm app (well, except maybe for some firmware ones). Using it would send the HTML5 app over to the other phone. Of course that phone would have to have a working widget manager, but both Vodafone and Opera offer one, and as far as I’ve been able to determine the operating system will actually recognise the Bluetoothed app as a widget and start up the appropriate program to install and run it.

(Incidentally, this sharing would mean the end of the current app-store-based monetisation scheme. Users would have to pay for the content, and not for the app itself. But I feel that’s going to happen anyway, so why not start now?)

The reverse is not yet possible. There is no easy way yet for consumers to send HTML5 apps via Bluetooth from an S60 or a Windows Mobile phone. It’s possible, but it’s a many-step process that will be unlikely to appeal to the average user.

But that’s fine, too. The cool new hPalm can do a trick that’s easy to eplain and show, and that no other phone can do. That’s differentiation, and it will serve hPalm well.

Success is not ensured, and it would be dangerous to try to build a marketing appeal based solely on this feature, especially since the HTML5 app ecosystem still needs at least two years to mature. Adding it to webOS wouldn’t hurt, though.

Operators

The operator problem is serious, but here, too, a web-based strategy might help.

I know for a fact that Vodafone is pouring significant resources into the web (for instance for hiring me to make sense of mobile browsers), and from time to time I hear things that might point to other operators being interested, too.

Operators are discovering the web, and hPalm is uniquely positioned to capitalise on that fact.

There’s no guaranteed win here, but a strictly web-based strategy certainly won’t hurt hPalm’s chances. Besides, they’ve already started on this road, and it’s better to continue to the logical conclusion than to backtrack.

Conclusion

Concluding, a further expansion of its web-based strategy will net hPalm a nice group of developers in the short run, and might even solve the consumer and operator problems in the long run, although success is not guaranteed here.

Since Palm has already been doing all of this anyway, no serious change of strategy is required. The developer relations team just needs some more support, and it needs to concentrate fully on converting existing web developers.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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1 Posted by Ben Hinman on 3 May 2010 | Permalink

If they can sort out the hardware and make some meaningful attempt at international sales, then count me in! (I am of course hoping that is precisely what HP will bring to the table)

2 Posted by Roland van Ipenburg on 3 May 2010 | Permalink

Having a web-centric strategy doesn't help much if the toolchain developers have to set up is just as complicated as the average toolchain used for native development. At that point the average developer doesn’t care about the platform his apps run on. If apps based on web technologies can't be easily developed and deployed using the tools web developers are currently using those web developers won't start creating apps.

3 Posted by Eric Anderson on 3 May 2010 | Permalink

> webOS has little
> differentiation; it’s just
> another smartphone platform in
> the eyes of consumers, and not
> the most interesting one

I want to disagree with this statement. WebOS does have some issues but it also has some interesting aspects that no other phone is doing well. For example:

* Multi-tasking - The card-based method of multi-tasking makes the iPhone feel like I am going back to DOS.

* Synergy - Despite the retarded name it is an awesome feature. To have my data from several cloud services (Google, Yahoo, Facebook, etc) all merge into a consistent UI for storing contacts, email, messaging, etc just makes so much sense. Having to downloading an app for every service that each behaves differently feels very awkward.

* Openness - While not perfect the use of open technologies, a more open app catalog, the encouragement of the home-brew community just gives me the warm fuzzies. I feel the other phone companies just want to dictate how I should use the phone while Palm lets me use it on my own terms.

This is not to say WebOS is perfect. The use of web technologies has made the device not as responsive as I would like. But I think beefier hardware to come in the future will solve that problem.

4 Posted by Juan on 3 May 2010 | Permalink

> Oh, and in order to lure even more web developers,
> hPalm should support device APIs that allow JavaScript
> access to the accelerometer, geolocation, the camera,
> and other phone functions.
> That would be a cool new toy to play with.

It doesn't already? That'd be the whole point!
accelerometer.on("tilt", doSomething);

5 Posted by Ben Combee on 4 May 2010 | Permalink

Ben & Dion aren't doing it alone -- I got hired from Mozilla at the start of March to help with the native SDK developer story, and we've also got Josh, two Kevins, Fred, and Enda in the DTS team that are helping developers everyday through our forums and direct contact. The other Ben & Dion are a bit more visible, but I feel like we've got a great team here and we're going to do our best to kick butt on through the rest of 2010 to keep the webOS story going.

6 Posted by ppk on 4 May 2010 | Permalink

@Ben: That's good to hear. I was referring to late last year/early this year when talking about Dion & other Ben doing it alone, but it's good to know that situation is being rectified.

7 Posted by Mario on 5 May 2010 | Permalink

Great article. About sharing HTML5 apps, why not just tweet or mail a web address? Just as iPhone users can bookmark on their home screens...

8 Posted by Tasarim on 18 May 2010 | Permalink

Awsome article. On the operators thing btw, there were news on Bloomberg today that pointed out that Vodafone had increased their profit margin by huge amounts. I don't think that's a coincidence ;)