HP has no engineers left. That’s the only explanation for this amazing story in the January 2, 2012 New York Times. (Note to San Jose Mercury-News: how come a newspaper 3,000 miles away got this story first?) In 2011 Hewlett-Packard (HP) released their tablet, the TouchPad. It was an immediate flop. To put it mildly. After seven weeks on the market, HP pulled it. Yet another millstone … er, make that milestone, I think … for the company that once stood for Silicon Valley. The story is depressing in the extreme. Read on only if you have a ready supply of Prozac, Xanax, Zoloft, or other antidepressant at hand. (Alcohol is not recommended. Yes, I know that’s not how SSRI antidepressants work.)
The story begins with HP’s $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm in 2010. HP was mainly after WebOS, the potentially wonderful Palm operating system. Note the word “potentially.” Even former Palm executives doubted that WebOS could be built as designed given available tools. WebOS was supposed to be constructed using web technology. Starting with the open-source WebKit. There’s a reason WebKit is open source. It’s good enough for building web browsers and extensions. But the code is not optimized for much beyond that. So the basis for WebOS was probably inadequate from the beginning.
But things were made worse by the programming style Palm (and later HP) used. Rather than sticking to object-oriented software design, each team was allowed to build pieces of the OS on its own. This is a 25 year step back in programming. Later, they tried to use the separate pieces to construct objects. (Programmers have a technical term for this: kludge.) That worked about as well as it usually does, namely not at all. Palm introduced the Pre in June, 2009 to critical acclaim and market failure. Customers said the Pre was just too slow, it crashed a lot, and they returned just about all of the units that had been sold. Palm put itself up for sale in April, 2010.
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HP managed to make a bad situation worse. Shortly after acquiring Palm, ‘important members of the WebOS team were disappearing. Mr. Mercer had already left. Peter Skillman, vice president of design at Palm, eventually left for a job at Nokia. Matias Duarte, vice president of human interface and user experience for WebOS, left a month after the acquisition for a job at Google. Several people said his departure was a major loss. “He was WebOS,” the former member of the WebOS software team said of Mr. Duarte. “When he left, the vacuum was just palpable. What you’re seeing is frankly a bunch of fourth- and fifth-stringers jumping onto WebOS in the wake of Duarte’s leaving.” Mr. Duarte did not respond to a request for an interview.’ (New York Times, January 2, 2012, p. B1) Somehow in their haste to acquire Palm, HP had forgotten to get employment contracts in place for key people. Amazing.
This is software, not hardware. To build software you need the informal knowledge in the heads of the architects and programmers. Letting those folks leave means HP management was utterly incompetent. Frankly, it’s getting embarrassing to have HP in our neighborhood.