Although I’ve been an iPad user since they were first released in 2010, ultimately, I’m keen on tablets in general. And I can be pretty non-partisan about it as you may have noticed if you’ve watched either of my videos about using tablets in the classroom. I’ve not given up on regular computers yet, but if I can use my iPad for a task instead of my laptop, I generally do. And I encourage others to try out using a tablet. If the iPad’s not for you, that’s fine, and no threat to me. Yet the reality is that after a year and a half, the iPad has had no real competition from any of the various offerings out there. Some have even gone so far as to say there is no tablet market, but rather, only an iPad market. I genuinely hope that’s not true because Apple needs serious competition to continue to innovate, just as competitors need Apple for the same reason. It’s an “iron sharpens iron” thing.
That’s one reason I was genuinely excited about Hewlett's Packard's TouchPad. I’ve played with a number of Android tablets, but they’re largely uninspiring. However, the previews of the TouchPad I’d seen earlier this year seemed somewhat promising. The interface was fairly unique—different from both iOS and Android. And multitasking even seemed more robust than that in iOS 4. I’ve hated to think of tablet computing coming down to an eventual two-horse race between iOS and Android. I would have much preferred to see the Touchpad’s webOS as the biggest competitor to iOS. At least webOS seemed to have a sense of style. Unfortunately, HP released the TouchPad way too early.
Why I Couldn’t Recommend the HP TouchPad
A few days after the TouchPad’s July 1 release, I stopped by the local BestBuy to check them out for myself. There was an actual HP representative in the store who quickly intercepted me as soon as I stared at the TouchPad display for more than five seconds. She placed a TouchPad directly into my hands for her demonstration. It was not one of the ones tethered to Best Buy’s security system, but rather her very own TouchPad from what she told me. And it truly was, as I noticed when we looked at the email features.
The HP representative was very professional and she knew the TouchPad well. The device’s ultimate failure to catch on cannot be blamed on people like her. Rather, blame the device itself, or more specifically, the PTB at HP who allowed the TouchPad to be released well before it was ready for primetime.
While the HP rep demonstrated the features of her TouchPad, I became increasingly disillusioned, shocked and even a bit appalled at what it couldn’t do. First, I was incredibly surprised that it had no video out capability. I realize that I see the world through pedagogical lenses, but part of the iPad’s genius is that it can be connected to a TV or projector and used for presentations or educational purposes. Without a video out option, that means it’s a device that could not be used by the instructor for lessons in front of a class or for a business professional to make a presentation in front of clients.
I asked the HP rep how I could take notes on the TouchPad if I were in a meeting. She hesitated a moment and said that it really couldn’t do that yet. I was told that it came with QuickOffice, but for right now it only viewed Word documents and couldn’t create or edit them. I should point out that a version of QuickOffice that allows editing was released for the TouchPad last week, and there have also been a handful of notetaking apps that have been released along the way.
Nevertheless, I was dumbfounded. I’ve always equated HP with business use. Yet the HP TouchPad really couldn’t be used much for business at all. The TouchPad at its release was little more than a consumption device. I can only wonder who HP saw as its target audience for the TouchPad?
Whether comparisons between the TouchPad and the iPad are fair or not, they are impossible to avoid. The TouchPad looks very similar at first glance to a first generation iPad and the TouchPad was initially priced at $499 for the 16 GB model—the same price as the 16 GB iPad. Apple has claimed that they spend years in R&D developing the iPad and that the iPhone was an afterthought that came out of that development and ended up being released first. On day one, the iPad—despite the claims of detractors that it was only a consumption device—gave users access to a choice of a number of word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation apps of varying degrees of ability. I truly don’t mean this in a platform-partisan manner, but I know with certainty that Apple would have never released a device so prematurely as HP did with the TouchPad.
HP’s Decision in Haste
And then, as everyone is all so well aware, the bottom fell out for any hope of the TouchPad’s success within a mere 49 days after its released. Axed quicker than a new show on the Fox network, HP surprised everyone by announcing on August 18 that they were ceasing all production of webOS hardware. In fact, they said they were getting out of computer hardware all together, although the latter has been interpreted in a number of ways in the weeks since.
I honestly don’t know if HP panicked over the poor sales of the TouchPad, or if Best Buy’s request that HP take them back was a kind of last straw for HP’s current president, Léo Apotheker, who doesn’t seem much interested in making devices of any kind. Regardless, the TouchPad never stood much of a chance due to premature release and a price tag that was way too high.
The "Fire Sale"
Speaking of prices, before HP canned the TouchPad, they briefly brought it down one hundred dollars by marking it at $399. But even this was too expensive when a mere $100 dollars more could get you an iPad that was actually capable of doing more than passive activities. So over the weekend of August 20-21, HP surprised everyone a second time in the same number of days by slashing the cost of remaining stock to a mere $99. Suddenly, everyone wanted one, but there were none to be found!
I heard about the $99 price point on the afternoon of Saturday, August 20. As I’ve already suggested, I’m a bit of a tablet enthusiast, and I saw the true potential of webOS, despite HP’s poor implementation of it in the TouchPad. While I would never have paid $499 or even $399 for the device, like a lot of folks, I was definitely interested when they were down to $99. I thought it would be great fun to customize one to my accounts and emails and see what using it on a personal level was like. I made a quick check of eBay and saw that even used TouchPads were selling for much higher than $99, so I figured a the very least I could always recoup my money, and then some, if I decided I didn’t want it. Or I could use it as another physical tablet example to pass around the room if I did another seminar on instructional use with tablet computers.
Unfortunately, by Saturday afternoon, I was really too late. I ran by a local Target and two separate Walmart stores, but all the TouchPads were long gone after the drop to $99. I didn’t even consider going to Best Buy because I assumed that they were probably the first stores to run out of stock.
So that night, I went to HP’s website. Sure enough, they were in stock, but every time I tried to order one, their website would go down. I tried multiple times to order a 16 GB model, but every time I advanced a bit further in the process, the screen would display an error message. I finally got to a final payment screen, entered in everything required of me, and submitted my order. Another error screen on HP’s website! Had my order gone through or not?
I waited a couple of hours and thought I’d try again. By that time, a notice stated all 16 GB models were sold out. The only TouchPad left was the 32 GB model that originally sold for $599, but had been drastically reduced to $149. After checking eBay again to make certain I could cover the cost if I decided to sell it, I decided to try for the TouchPad with the greater memory. The process was similar to before. I’d make small gains in my order, only to hit another error screen. Finally, I got to the final screen and submitted, but then, no confirmation page or email—only an error screen.
At that point, I assumed that neither of my orders went through, but figured it didn’t really matter. Then on the following Tuesday, I got two confirmation emails and discovered I’d successfully ordered both a 16 GB model and a 32 GB model as well. A quick check of eBay and I was still assured, based on what the TouchPads were selling for, that I had nothing to worry about. In fact, I could sell the 32 GB model and essentially pay for both of them and not be out anything at all.
HP Clearly Wasn’t Ready for a Hit
Supposedly, Léo Apotheker’s vision for HP includes making it over into a software services company for businesses. Hopefully, that doesn’t include the kind of services HP uses in-house to run it’s own ordering system. During that weekend of the $99 fire sale, HP sold more TouchPads than even existed—more than they had in inventory and more than they had coming back unsold from stores. In fact, in yet another surprising move, HP announced a few days ago that they were going back to the factory to make one last TouchPad production run to take care of the unfulfilled orders. Of course, most speculate that this last run is primarily to appease parts suppliers who were about to be stuck with a lot of custom TouchPad components.
After HP closed sales of the $99 TouchPad in the wee hours of August 22, they put up a notice allowing customers to sign up for an email alert when more TouchPads were back in stock and orders were opened up once again. Of course, orders have yet to be opened up again. A lot of people have speculated that HP thought they were getting a number of TouchPads back from stores which they would turn around and sell. Rather, any TouchPad that came back had to immediatly be allocated to those with orders already in the system. A few days after posting the notice for email sign-ups, HP removed it.
One of the more popular webOS enthusiast sites is precentral.net. At that site, there is a thread in the forums which will probably hit over 1800 posts within a few hours of my writing this blog entry. This thread is dedicated to a discussion among people like me who ordered their Touchpads from the HP website over the weekend of the $99 sale. In this thread order numbers are compared with posted ship dates on the HP website (very few have posted that their orders have actually shipped), examination of credit card charges and holds, tales of waiting online to speak with HP customer service only to learn nothing that isn’t in the order status on the website, and just more of the same ad infinitum. You can actually read only a handful of the posts to get the gist of all 1800 contributions.
But it’s even more amazing to see the frustration among those who ordered TouchPads who haven’t gotten them yet. Remember that before August 20, when the price was dropped to $99, no one wanted a TouchPad. Then, when the price was right, every one wanted one.
And then to make this particular group of backordered TouchPad seekers even more agitated, on Thursday of last week, a marketing rep at HP announced via Twitter that all those with backorders would be receiving an email within 48 hours updating them as to the status of their order. The email simply explained the fact that those who had not received their orders yet (and it seems the majority had not) would get them within six to eight weeks after the additional and final production run.
The email promised to arrive within 48 hours was not sent to every person with a backordered TouchPad all at once. It is true that a few of those with orders placed got the email within the promised 48 hours. However, at the end of business day last Friday, the emails suddenly stopped being sent out even though many customers had not received them yet. This led to many in this remaining group panicking (based on the posts at precentral.net) that their orders were perhaps cancelled because they didn’t get this promised email within the promised 48 hours. In hindsight, it seems pretty clear that someone in customer service at HP, who was in charge of sending out the rest of the emails, must have simply taken his or her three-day Labor Day holiday, saving the remaining emails to go out until after a return to work on Tuesday. However, the emails did not, in fact, resume on Tuesday, but rather on Wednesday; and finally it now seems as if everyone has been contacted who was supposed to be.
What’s clear from all this disorganization, lack of customer service and even professionalism on HP’s part as well as an ordering system that allowed for more orders than existing product is that HP was simply not prepared for a “hit” product. Remember that people stood in line for Apple’s iPad, even when the first generation had not been in anyone’s hand before its release. With the release of the iPad and iPad 2, there have not only been long lines, but initial shortages in stores and delays when ordering online. But at least you could place an order online and immediately be given a reasonable notice of ship time.
What if the TouchPad had been a hit at the beginning? Could HP have handled it? The $99 fire sale clearly demonstrates that HP would not have known how to handle any kind of significant demand if the product had been a hotly sought out object of desire.
Is there a Future for webOS?
I hope so. HP wants to license the OS, but so far it has no publicly-announced suitors. Despite all the chaos from HP, an unexpected result and silver lining from all this nonsense can be found in the fact that now the TouchPad is the second most popular tablet computer, bested only by the iPad itself. Most of the other tablets out there have only sold in the tens of thousands from all known estimates. But once all TouchPads are sold, there will probably be a million or so TouchPads out there, which is certainly not a user base that should be ignored.
Android tablets seem to be a dime a dozen. But I really believe that an enterprising company could license webOS for their own tablet, and if any significant attention is paid to the device, and if lessons are learned from HP’s many blunders, a company would have an opportunity to differentiate itself from all the Android offerings.
Honestly, I hope this happens. webOS seems to be a really good mobile OS with a lot of potential. It was initially developed by Palm and then Palm was bought by HP. The latter company seems to have squandered their prize, but that’s not to say that another company couldn’t do something better.
Of course, that won’t happen immediately; such things take time. 2011 truly will be the year of the iPad 2 as Steve Jobs promised. But perhaps in 2012 or 2013, webOS will resurrect in a new and better incarnation from a company other than HP. Otherwise, I’m afraid that all we’re left with is Android as a competitor to iOS, and somehow I can’t see Android’s iron doing all that much to sharpen Apple’s mobile operating system.
I've yet to receive either of the TouchPads I have on order. Six to eight weeks means sometime before the end of October. That's okay. I've not wasted time calling HP to check on my order, and I don't obsess on the forums, althogh I have posted a few times, once even mentioning that "patience is a virtue." That little proverb didn't prove popular for HP when they were developing the TouchPad, nor when they prematurely discontinued it. My advice hasn't been followed by many of those posting on precentral.net either. And yet patience nearly always rewards those who practice it; thus it's too bad that our instant "I want it now" culture has little patience for waiting.
If I do end up with a TouchPad or two, I'll be certain to give my own review of it, although by that time, such a review may only be a curiosity and little more. When the TouchPad was first released, I couldn't recommend it, but if you can obtain one at $99, I think it's a great value as long as you understand the future of the platform is iffy as of this writing. But who knows? Maybe there's a future for webOS still. I'll definitely be disappointed if there's not.
Your questions, thoughts, comments, and rebuttals are welcome in the comment section below.