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HP's Jon Rubinstein slams Android, takes on Apple's iPad

The Wall Street Journal has posed its interview with HP's Jon Rubinstein, shedding additional light on the firm's future plans for webOS in light of his past as a top engineer working with Steve Jobs at Apple and NeXT.

The interview, conducted as part of the D: Dive Into Mobile conference, began with Kara Swisher pinning down Rubinstein over his previous comments that he had never used Apple's iPhone before taking on the job of turning Palm around and launching the new webOS and the Palm Pre in 2009.

Not influenced by the iPhone

Rubinstein said that he's still never used the iPhone "as his own device" or extensively on a regular basis, arguing that he didn't want to be distracted at Palm in his efforts to build the the new webOS on "a blank sheet of paper, from the ground up."

Rubinstein added, "we wanted to have a unique experience with it. And so instead of just copying what everyone else does, we thought through the fundamentals, starting with Palm's original DNA, to create a really unique experience. And I think we've absolutely accomplished that."

While noting that Palm performs competitive analysis with other products including those from Apple, Rubinstein stressed that "I don't want to be tainted by a different experience. So I'm trying to come with a new, fresh outlook on how things should work."

Rubinstein said he wanted to feel out the experience of his own creations without "being biased with how some other product works," adding, "I think what we're seeing a lot in the industry right now is that everyone is copying the iPhone," remarks that seemed to be directed at Google's Android, RIM's BlackBerry, and Microsoft's Windows Phone 7.

Cat fight: Android vs webOS

Swisher noted that Google's Andy Rubin, the former founder of Danger and current VP of Engineering on Android, described his own product and Apple's iOS among the few modern mobile operating systems, while dismissing most other companies as working with old legacy systems stuck in the past.

Despite starting from a clean slate to develop the webOS, Rubin had said that Palm was really still in the mindset of the original Palm OS experience, contrasting that with Android's development at Google.

"That's just not true," Rubinstein replied. "We had the unique opportunity to start from a blank sheet of paper. Palm OS, the original Palm OS, was sixteen years old, and hadn't been supported in a while. So it really wasn't anything we could leverage from."

Repeating that "we did take some of the original Palm DNA," which he described as its ease of use, the minimal steps needed to perform operations, and gestures, things "that made the original Pilot great," Rubinstein countered that "we didn't use any of the [other] stuff from before. In fact, if anything, I'd say webOS is the most advanced mobile operating system out there."

He noted that webOS' "whole user interface is based in WebKit. We use JavaScript, CSS and HTML, so the languages of the web, to develop applications on top of it. We designed webOS to be connected to the cloud. That was part of the original concept around it." Rubinstein did not mention the cloud services failure the company experienced last winter that resulted in user data loss.

"If anything," Rubinstein added, "I'd say Android is based on Java, which is actually sort of more backward looking. We took a real leap forward in doing what we did. It's very similar to what the Chrome guys are doing at Google."

Why webOS failed at Palm

Asked what he thought caused the downfall of Palm as an independent company after the 2009 launch of the Palm Pre, Rubinstein answered, "I think that we did have many of the elements needed to be successful. We had a great team, we'd built a great operating system, we had a great product pipeline, we had relationships with carriers, a growing developer base. We had a half billion dollars in cash.

"But I think the market moved too fast, as far as the competition went," Rubinstein said. While seeing "a very clear way to get the company to profitability and continue on as an independent company, Palm "didn't see a way to get to scale," given the competitive landscape involving Apple, Google and Microsoft.

Rather than wanting to be a small successful company, which Rubinstein also admitted wouldn't likely be sustainable, he indicated that Palm made the decision to be acquired by HP in order to achieve the kind of scale required to matter in the market. Palm was rumored to have rejected a takeover offer from Apple, which was said to be primarily interested in acquiring the company's extensive patent portfolio.

Asked what Palm did wrong, Rubinstein agreed that "the weird lady marketing" Palm had used for the Pre was a mistake, and noted that "it takes time to deliver a mature operating system. I would like to have moved faster going from webOS 1.0 to 2.0," he added. "In general, I think the world moved a little faster than we expected. We ran out of runway."

Rubinstein said Palm had looked at a variety of options, including raising more money and creating partnerships, but said "we felt the most expeditious outcome was to partner with someone like HP, have them acquire the company and then move forward."

In describing HP as the ideal partner, Rubinstein said that while the company could have continued to license Android or Microsoft, "I think a company like HP needs to be in control of its own future. It needs to be able to differentiate its own products."

On page 2 of 3: Palm enters maelstrom of executive drama at HP, And a technical crisis.

Palm enters maelstrom of executive drama at HP

Rubinstein dismissed the controversy surrounding Mark Hurd's removal as HP's chief executive in August as "lots of turmoil for a day or two," suggesting that the acquired Palm had more connection to Todd Bradley, the executive vice president of HP's Personal Systems Group, and was therefore isolated from the turmoil occurring at the top of HP.

In reality, HP's loss of its chief executive clearly created major upheaval within the company and for Palm. HP announced its intent to buy Palm in April, and finalized the deal at the beginning of July before losing its chief executive a month later, resulting in rumors of both Rubinstein and Bradley being candidates for the chief executive position.

Bradley had earlier served as Palm's chief executive, arriving in 2003 during Palm's acquisition of Handspring, and leaving for HP in 2005 as Palm imploded under a series of bad decisions ranging from an inability to modernize the Palm OS to the decision to license Windows Mobile, which instantly doubled Microsoft's market share while rapidly accelerating Palm's demise.

HP decided instead to bring in an outsider, Léo Apotheker of SAP, as its new chief executive in September, invoking further drama as tech titan Larry Ellison of Oracle derided HP's firing of Hurd as the worst decision since Apple dismissed Steve Jobs, hired Hurd himself in an executive position at Oracle, and brought his company's ongoing lawsuit against SAP to HP's doorstep in a subpoena of Apotheker.

At the same time, HP had sued Oracle for hiring Hurd, fearing in its legal complaint that the former executive would "put HP’s most valuable trade secrets and confidential information in peril" in acting as co-president of Oracle.

And a technical crisis

Even before dealing with the loss of its chief executive, HP's newly acquired Palm unit began losing high level talent. That exodus included Rich Dellinger, Palm's User Interface Design Architect behind the webOS' notification system, who left for Apple, and Matias Duarte, a key webOS designer who left to join Google's Android. Palm's senior vice president of software and services Mike Abbot left to work for Twitter.

Before his departure, Hurd also created a mess for HP and Palm by announcing in June that his company didn't buy Palm to enter the smartphone business, but rather planned to use its technology to power "small form factor web-connected devices."

Hurt said HP didn't "spend billions of dollars trying to go into the smartphone business. That doesn’t in any way make any sense. We didn’t buy Palm to be in the smartphone business," comments that cast serious doubts over HP's future plans and likely helped to quench sales of the existing Palm Pre.

Afterward, as HP's executive turmoil boiled over, Bradley was assuring shareholders in an August conference call that HP would soon deliver the Slate PC tablet running Microsoft Windows that the company had demonstrated at the beginning of the year before announcing any interest in Palm, and then bring a new tablet to market early next year running its newly acquired software from Palm. HP's Slate PC was brought to market in a limited effort aimed at businesses, with such low expectations that the company originally only planned to build 5,000. It later made a second product run to deliver a reported 9,000 units.

According to a recent report, HP appears to planning to resell the basic design of the Slate PC as its PalmPad, which would appear to be possible given that the webOS uses processor agnostic web standards to create apps. This should allow the company to port its webOS to the Atom-based x86 design of the Slate PC, despite the webOS originally being targeted to work as a smartphone OS running on ARM processors.

PalmPad Slate PC

Microsoft is finding more difficulty in doing the opposite, porting its desktop Windows 7 to ARM processors, because Windows apps are more closely tied to the x86 processor architecture, requiring significant work from both third party developers and Microsoft itself. Reportedly, the company will spend two years making Windows capable of running on the more efficient ARM chips powering the majority of mobile devices.

HP has not yet clarified whether it will be delivering its webOS PalmPad on x86 hardware or moving the hardware design of its Slate PC to ARM. This should be revealed at CES, alongside Microsoft's own announcements regarding the ARM port of, presumably, Windows 8, which is also expected to arrive two years out.

On page 3 of 3: Palm within HP, Rubinstein on mobile OS competition, Rubinstein at NeXT, Apple and Palm.

Palm within HP

Rubinstein said that the Palm business unit within HP has been charged with developing webOS mobile devices, including "smartphones, tablets and netbooks." He added that "over time, we're going to provide the webOS to other groups within HP, for example the printer division. So we'll be providing that technology."

Rubinstein added that "what we chose to do is integrate part of the [acquired Palm] company into HP, and keep some of it separate. We really kept engineering pretty much completely separate," he said, noting that several hundred HP employees now working within its existing business unit, primarily engineering staff, were folded into the Palm group. He admitted that Palm had "lost some time and had missed the window on a product cycle," but that once the acquisition was completed in early July, Palm and HP employees "realigned the roadmap and we're off an running."

Rubinstein said HP hadn't yet decided whether to use the Palm name going forward as a brand; Swisher flatly recommended that HP should "kill it." Rubinstein said he had no emotional connections to the brand, saying it had both positive and negative connotations. Asked when HP would ship a new phone, Rubinstein said only that "we have a variety of products coming out next year. We have phones, we've got a tablet, we've got a variety of products we're working on right now."

Rubinstein on mobile OS competition

Asked whether the mobile industry can support all of the various platforms now vying for attention among buyers, from Android to iOS to WP7 to BlackBerry and Palm, Rubinstein said "I think there will be three to five, and I think we will be one of them."

Rubinstein touted unique and leading features of the webOS, including the card-based multitasking model and universal search in its initial 1.0 version, and new features in the recently released 2.0, such as extendable search plugins for expanding the search engines it can query. "And since we had the opportunity to designed webOS from the ground up for being a mobile device operating system, and we designed it to be scalable, its going to scale very nicely. It will really shine on the tablet," Rubinstein added.

Asked about how HP will position webOS as unique to stand out among other mobile device platforms to consumers, Rubinstein answered, "we really do have a unique user experience compared to everyone else," noting features such as "we integrate into the cloud. It's going to continue to be profound and a tremendous benefit to the users." He also pointed to HP's "connected device strategy" as being a differentiating feature. "Stay tuned," he added.

Rubinstein at NeXT, Apple and Palm

After an early position at HP fresh out of school, Rubinstein began working with Steve Jobs at NeXT in 1990 in a secret effort to build a new RISC-based workstation capable of running NeXTSTEP, a project that ended up getting abandoned as NeXT shifted its strategy towards running on standard PC hardware and then becoming a software development layer running on top of Windows NT and Sun's Solaris.

After being acquired by Apple however, NeXT's experience with RISC hardware helped make it easy to port its operating system to Apple's existing PowerPC Macs. Jobs recruited Rubinstein back to Apple as senior vice president of hardware engineering, where he helped pare down a confusing array of Macintosh lines and focus the company on building the 1997 Power Mac G3, which launched the struggling company back into a competitive position in performance with generic PCs.

Rubinstein also led development of the iMac in 1998, and has taken credit for bold design decisions such as its dependance upon USB (then an obscure interface that nobody was using, despite being widely available on PCs) and the stripping away of its legacy ports and floppy drive. Those decisions are often credited to Jobs himself.

Rubinstein was also charged with developing the 2001 iPod, and is recognized as seeing the potential of Toshiba's new 1.8 inch hard drive as the media player's storage, vision Toshiba itself lacked. That highly successful product was spun off in 2004 as an independent product group within Apple, with Rubinstein at the helm.

Rubinstein retired from Apple in early 2006, and later joined Palm in 2007, where he was similarly tasked with refocusing the company's broad, poorly competing catalog of mobile products. He unveiled the new Palm Pre and its webOS in 2009, and by its launch that summer was named the company's chief executive.

After running into battle against the iPhone 3GS, Palm's fortunes and outlook sagged, resulting the company shopping itself around for a buyer up until HP announced its plans to purchase the company in April of this year.

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