Monday, August 22, 2011

Will WebOS be another opportunity lost?

You know you have been in the game too long when you see things happen twice. Or more.
When I heard about what HP did with WebOS tablets and their future 'direction' on it, I was amused and upset at the same time. Amused because the way it was announced speaks volumes on the decision makers themselves rather than WebOS itself. You can bet that it was no knee jerk reaction. This was planned for some time by those who opposed HP buying WebOS or did not see it's value. They were just waiting for an excuse. How else to explain the suddenness of the decision? Why else would you talk smack on something that you wanted to sell? "My car is crap, would you like to buy it?" What normally would happen is to they'd talk about it's good points and try to get the best value from the sale. When you say bad things about that you want to sell, you want it to be valued low enough so that the reluctant buyer sees it as a bargain instead. When the value is low enough, people who would not normally buy something like it, may be tempted to do so.
I am upset because WebOS represents good technology. When the tablets came out, WebOS got favorable reviews. Some reviewers did complain about some rough edges but forgave them because the tablet was a first model and bound to have growing pains. They expected that HP would work out the kinks in the next model. I was looking forward to picking one up.
But history is littered with good intention and great technologies. The most analogous example I can think of a is PC-GEOS. For the briefest of time, PC/GEOS and DR-DOS represented a strong challenge to Windows 3.0. PC/GEOS, later GeoWorks, was graphical desktop environment that was advanced in it's day. GeoWorks came with a word processor, graphics editor and communications software. It had a Motif-like UI with advanced features such as scalable fonts and Postscript support. It provided multi-tasking, tear-away menus and an advanced API. The API provided services for almost all of the basic functions for desktop software. The word processor was about 25kb because almost of of the functions were system calls. And since it was the early 1990s, it worked well with only 640kb of RAM. Yes, the early 1990s. Windows 3.0 still had bit-mapped fonts. Some credit it for making Microsoft to come out with Windows 3.1 just after a year it released 3.0, just to add scalable font support (it still used bit-mapped fonts for the OS).

GeoWorks Ensemble running on DosBox on SUSE
If you want to try it yourself, you can download a basic version of it called Ensemble Lite from Breadbox. There are general instructions on how to get it running on DOSBOX or you could run in a VM running FreeDOS. Here is video of a working example.

GeoWorks was a lost opportunity to put ahead a an easy to user, technically superior system that worked on existing computers. It was also a lost opportunity to make using computers less about knowing about computers than getting work done. The two biggest gripes users had about GeoWorks then was that the word processor didn't do tables and there was no spreadsheet. People had little problem using it because it was very stable. In short, it was also a lost opportunity to put applications before operating systems.
WebOS by most accounts is a system that could offer a choice other then Apple and Android for tablets. Competition is the key to keep innovation humming. Apple has already chosen to litigate while it innovates. The iPads are also still not considered enterprise ready while Apples doesn't care about the enterprise. Androids will always be struggling to keep a balance between openess and security. It also has to balance between apps running locally and depending on the cloud to deliver productivity. WebOS could be that middle ground between flexibility and security, offering fewer apps but have apps that just work out of the box and aren't afraid to live on the box. All the while continuing to push the OS into the background. Which Microsoft can't and won't do.
GeoWorks is a great product that didn't gain prominence because it couldn't compete against Microsoft's business practices back then (which effectively made PC makers pay for Windows for every machine shipped regardless of whether Windows was bundled or not). This was a time when people still ran other graphical operating systems on PCs and Windows was still version 3.0. GeoWorks didn't do disk operations so it still needed MS-DOS or DR-DOS so it wasn't like it was cutting into existing DOS sales. It also failed because it was hard and expensive to develop for. Sales were so bad, the company behind it later looked to revenue from sales of the SDK to help keep it running, what we now know as suicidal. This created a catch-22. People won't use it because there are no apps and developers won't develop for it because there a few users.
At first I ran GeoWorks on my PC but I eventually moved on to Linux 0.99pre12(?) and I bought an old 640kb Laptop (with a lead-acid battery!) to run GeoWorks. Printing was a snap because I printed to a file using  the postscript printer driver. I would then pipe the file to a postscript printer for output. Sweet.
In the end, Geoworks became an ultra-niche product and a promise of better computing unfulfilled. Don't believe me? Try it yourself, guess when you thought the OS came out and tell yourself it came out in 1991.

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