Ina Fried

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Exclusive: Palm Boss Talks Past, Future of WebOS

After his onstage talk at D: Dive Into Mobile, Jon Rubinstein, head of HP’s Palm unit, sat down with Mobilized to talk more about webOS–its past, present and future.


In the interview, he talked a lot about what had changed in the five months since HP completed its purchase of Palm. A bunch of Palm workers have left, but Rubinstein noted that the unit has made more than 70 new hires and brought over more than 200 people from HP. The company has also shifted its focus to include tablets and printers and other types of mobile devices–something the underfunded standalone company wasn’t even considering doing.

“We were looking strictly at phones,” Rubinstein acknowledged, while maintaining that the webOS itself is designed to scale.

Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Mobilized: When you guys were a standalone company, were you focused on phones? Or were you already looking at tablets and other kinds of devices?

Rubinstein: We were looking strictly at phones. We were a small company, but when we designed webOS we designed it to be scalable. To build a great tablet experience on top of it is fairly straightforward. It is work–we’ve got to update the user interface and there are some other things we have got to do.

But the basic system is absolutely scalable to a tablet. While we weren’t working on it, that was one of the real attractions that Palm had for HP, that they could rapidly expand into a variety of different devices.

Obviously their long-term interest isn’t just in tablets and phones even?

Rubinstein: They’ve stated they are moving their printers to webOS. We’re busy working with the guys from the printer division to do that. There are other things going on within various parts of HP that are looking at using webOS or building on top of webOS.

The Labs people are doing some really exciting things. They are very excited to have webOS to build on top of.

What are some of the considerations that come in when you are going to build for a printer or a tablet that just weren’t needed when you were just a phone?

Rubinstein: Well, because webOS was a 1.0 operating system, frankly we hadn’t paid enough attention to machine dependencies. We were doing each product in its entirety. We did have to worry about another division using the code or even having more form factors than a handful at any point in time. So, one of the things we are doing right now is getting webOS to be much more machine-independent.

We were clearly very interested in enterprise, but it wasn’t on as fast a track as we are now. We already had a variety of enterprise capabilities. WebOS 2.0 has got VPN and other enterprise-class features. But we’re significantly accelerating our enterprise capabilities so we can utilize HP’s huge sales channel in the enterprise

You talked about webOS scaling. Is there any reason it couldn’t be powering a low-end notebook?

I think a netbook is fine. I don’t really want to get into the notebook business. We’ll leave that to Microsoft. The notebook business is partnering closely with Microsoft. We’re not focused on that at all. Our plan isn’t to subsume what Microsoft [does]. That’s not our goal. There is a very, very strong business on both the notebook and desktop space–and server space–that’s Windows-based and that makes sense.

With the HP acquisition you got a lot more resources, but you lost a lot of the people that built webOS.

Rubinstein: Yes and no. There’s a large group of us that built webOS. Clearly, anytime you go through a transition like this you are going to lose some people along the way. We lost some. We’ve also been hiring a lot. Since we closed the deal we have hired over 70 people. Two hundred-plus people from HP have joined us, and other divisions at HP are busy working on helping us make webOS successful. So while yes, we lost a few people along the way, we gained a lot of people.

You mentioned on stage you have a variety of products coming next year in several shapes and sizes–phones, tablets. How important will next generations be for some of those products?

Rubinstein: We’re big believers that the more bandwidth the better. I am very excited to get to LTE and HSDPA+ [two faster cellular networks]. We have some really interesting visions on where webOS can go as you get more and more bandwidth.

You were there the other night when [Qualcomm CEO] Paul [Jacobs] and I were talking. The two big issues, we think, are battery life and bandwidth.

More and more bandwidth will enable more and more things that today we cannot even imagine. And remember, we designed webOS to integrate tightly with the cloud. My personal view is that
it’s not about applications. Applications actually [will] bifurcate to where part of them runs on the device and part of them runs on the cloud.

Are you spending a lot of time thinking about how to synch the data that lives in a webOS device with all of HP’s other products?

Rubinstein: We certainly think that a unifying experience around webOS and the ability to access your cloud data across a variety of devices is absolutely crucial

A lot of data is going to be on laptops and desktops. Do you need to build a cloud device to have webOS talk to them?

Rubinstein: Stay tuned.

How do you get the developers you need to create webOS apps?

We have a lot of really interesting ways to develop for webOS. It’s very easy to develop for, and people like developing for it. We are getting a whole new generation of developers.

We had this developer conference in New York. If you look at the audience, a lot of them were under 17 and they were making enough money selling applications to come from wherever they were–they weren’t from New York–to bring one of their parents or both of their parents to come to the developer conference.

And to grow your share of the big-time application developers in mobile. Do you think it’s just a scale question, and if you guys can sell more devices you will get them?

Rubinstein: We have doubled our application base since, from sometime around the acquisition close until now

We’ve got, and it depends how you count it, 5,000 to 6,000 applications….If you look at the Android store, a lot of that is crapware. We’ve focused on delivering quality. We are going to add a lot more stuff over time as well, because obviously there’s a lot of competition about the number of apps. But at the end of the day they don’t use 300,000 apps–they use that dozen apps that are important to them. We need to make sure we have that dozen apps for a broad set of customers.

But you are not there today?

Rubinstein: We’re not there today. I would say we are well on our way. Obviously we kind of stalled for a bit going through the acquisition.


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