History Repeats Itself at Hewlett-Packard webOS Unit
HP has announced to the world that it plans to stop selling its TouchPad tablets and other hardware running the webOS software it got after spending $1.2 billion to acquire Palm last year. Yet it wants to keep the webOS software, guessing, perhaps correctly, that there’s some revenue-generating business to be made of it yet, maybe in patents. Meanwhile, the hardware side of webOS is, after disappointing sales, being shut down, just maybe to be reanimated under the umbrella of the soon-to-be spun out PC business. And it’s building one last run of the heavily discounted TouchPad, to rid itself of parts it has already paid for. It’s complicated!
As it happens, a pair of internal HP memos — which were leaked to PreCentral.net, a site devoted to the Pre, the first smartphone to run webOS — appear to outline how the webOS split is going to go down.
According to the memos, the webOS software business — that is, the bit that HP still wants — is being moved inside HP’s Office of Strategy and Technology, or OS&T, which is headed up by Shane Robison, HP’s executive vice president and chief strategy and technology officer. One of the two memos was written by him.
And what of the webOS hardware group? It will remain within the Personal Systems Group, which is HP’s formal name for the personal computer business it says it wants to spin off as a separate company.
It’s not the first time that the hardware and software halves of what used to be Palm have been split into separate entities. Students of the history of Palm well remember the strange odyssey that began in 2002, when Palm — less than two years after spinning out of its prior parent, 3Com — split into two companies: A hardware company called PalmOne, and a software company called PalmSource.
The idea was that the two halves of the business had different agendas. The software business saw opportunities in licensing the PalmOS to numerous hardware manufacturers. In time, several companies took out licenses: Handspring, launched by Palm’s original founders Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky, was the original licensee, and others followed. Sony made a bunch of handhelds sold under the Clie brand; IBM sold something called the WorkPad; Garmin made a GPS-enabled PDA that could also help keep you from getting lost. Eventually a company called Access bought it and still operates it to this day.
Meanwhile, the hardware business soldiered on under the name PalmOne. In 2003, it acquired Handspring, bringing back its original founders, and in 2005 it bought back the rights to use the Palm name. Then, in 2007, came the big investment from Elevation Partners, the creation of webOS and, well, you know how that turned out.