The argument for a $99 TouchPad purchase.

Let’s be clear about one thing right up front:

HP, though in a state of public denial about the health and future potential of webOS, effectively killed the platform for consumers last week when it killed its hardware. That’s the honest truth. No one is going to come near the platform, at least not yet, with the stink of death all over it. Sure, in the wake of the Google/Motorola deal, someone like Samsung or LG might go sniffing around to potentially have another option in place if Android doesn’t work out in some way, but if HP, with its finances and resources couldn’t pull off a coup in the mobile market, it’s hard for another company to see itself doing the same.

How well it used those finances and resources to further the platform remains a hotly-debated question. Instead of creating compelling new hardware using its own brand advantages (such as Envy), it chose to move somewhat stale Palm-envisioned hardware to market, to its detriment.

That said, webOS remains an extremely compelling platform, for about a million reasons, not the least of which is the fervor with which its dedicated community remains steadfast in the face of decimation. Furthermore, I sincerely hope that it can wriggle its way free of Apotheker’s personal enterprise agenda and find new life with other hardware manufacturers.

But that’s not why we’re here.

I think we can all agree that the TouchPad at $499 was a bit overzealous. No one actually expected it (probably not even HP) to really give the iPad serious competition. Ok, there was the “number one plus” guy, but I’m pretty sure he drank some bad milk that day, because that’s how confused toddlers speak. And upon announcing the exit from the hardware market last week, the news hit the internet, HP dropped the prices on the TouchPad to ridiculously low numbers, and people lost their minds and hit stores this weekend for the biggest fire sale we’ve seen in recent times.

I had no idea I lived around so many nerds, because I couldn’t find one anywhere. I did, however grab two yesterday on Amazon, and a third this morning via Barnes and Noble, an unlikely source, but a valid one just the same. Still, I don’t know how many civilians* ran out and bought these. Evidently, enough of them to cause pundits, bloggers, and just about everyone else to split into two camps: those who expressed disdain and confusion as to why anyone would buy DOA hardware, and those who clicked buy – in some cases, multiple times.

To many of us, this was catnip. That hardware, at that price, regardless of the harpooning it got from HP, equals fun, pure and simple. The homebrew community alone will make that thing worth playing with, but I started thinking how I could incorporate multiple $99 internet-connected devices into my life in ways I hadn’t even considered.

The obvious ones:

Digital photo frame – at that price, if all you ever do is park it and watch pictures of your kids/pets/vacations go by, you’ll have done better than most of the crappy frames on the market today.

Extra ‘living room’ device – whether you need it or not, having an extra device in another part of the house to do all the stupid little stuff you like to do is convenient. Weather, email, movie times, what have you.

Dedicated e-book reader – at $99, the TouchPad is now cheaper than the cheapest Kindle Amazon currently sells, and has a Kindle app.

Ancillary display – one of the greatest things webOS brought to users was Exhibition Mode. I can easily see myself using it as nothing more than a data display of non-important yet interesting info (news, Facebook updates, etc.)

The not-so-obvious ones:

I started to think about having multiple internet-connected devices around my house. Then I started to think about embedding them in walls in high-traffic areas. I started to think about being able to do something cool for my wife in the kitchen. She loves to cook and experiment, and while I can’t afford to mount an iPad inside a cabinet door for her, I can sure as hell afford to do it with a TouchPad now. Recipes, Google searches, anything she wants. I can cover it with transparent film and protect it against whatever she feels like throwing at it.

We’ve been renovating our office and now have employees on two floors. I was mentioning how it would be cool to have an always-on video intercom or something that we could just walk in front of to talk between the floors. An unnecessary – but fun – and potentially useful time saver.

I could go on, but I think you see where I’m going. To date, there hasn’t been a decent piece of hardware, priced like this, with basic functionality that has the potential to grow with a strong base of geek users, hacking away at it, now out of spite as much as out of dedication. I’m not saying it’s going to cause a webOS resurgence, but the same way that jailbreaking the iPhone spurred interesting innovation, people with the desire to keep pushing will do so, and geeks like us with a little time and money will reap the benefits.

I mean, come on – there are people that are still nuts about the Newton. Do you really think this is the end for the TouchPad?

*a word that aptly describes non-geeks, attributed to the venerable Phil Nickinson

Seriously, HP. Pull it together.

WebOS needs to succeed. Seriously. For a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it is vaguely awesome. However, instead of doubling down on development resources and aggressively attracting developers themselves to the platform, HP has decided to do the easy thing: throw money at marketing.

Unfortunately, for HP, this strategy is doomed to fail. Gaga will not sell phones for you. A cutesy handset with extremely limited market potential will not attract new users (just ask Microsoft). And wrapping a delivery truck in Veer graphics and telling people to check out the ‘summer tour’ is just moronic.

HP needs to release hardware – compelling hardware – with reasons for people to choose it over any other hardware. This isn’t about Apple domination, or Android fragmentation. It’s about making the best products possible and running the best software possible, both of which HP, with its massive coffers, is in a position to do, and both of which – to date – it has failed to do.

The Veer is adorable, but not for everyone. The TouchPad, though not supposed to launch “until it’s ready” seems to be a very 1.0 device, and is getting reviews in which the reviewers themselves seem to to be disappointed, having really wanted to love it out of the gate. This market moves at a pace that is almost unsustainable. The longer HP sits around, not actively fixing bugs, not releasing great hardware, and actively pushing products that regular people can’t find a reason to buy, the quicker webOS dies on the vine.

And if the rumors are true and the Pre 3 doesn’t hit until the fall, you can forget about any kind of webOS resurgence. It’s done. People can argue that this is a marathon and not a sprint, but even a great runner can’t fall too far behind and make up all that distance.

Super late first thoughts on webOS, now that I’ve had a chance to dive in.

Hohoho

Our fabulously talented CTO is a well-known webOS advocate. He’s weathered every storm Palm has been through since the introduction of the original Pre, which he still rocks, because he’s on Sprint and is feverishly waiting for the new phones to come out this summer. As he is an awesome dude, he surprised me by ordering a Pre 2 for me to test, unlocked, as a developer unit from HP. The phone showed up today, and I made an executive decision to shirk the rest of my responsibilities for the afternoon.

WebOS definitely has a lot of things to like about it, not the least of which is the ability to manage the information coming in much more effectively than most other phones. Its notification system is widely regarded one of the best (if not the best, depending on who you ask) in the biz. And it’s all true: notifications are super cool. They make sense, they stack up, and you can dismiss them without fear. Multitasking is actually that, with apps updating in the background so you can return to them and see what you’ve missed accurately. I had my Google Apps account set up and synced quickly, and I created a Palm Profile to backup the device. The built-in apps are as polished as Apple’s own offerings, and webOS really shines visually. It’s a lovely user experience.

However, I couldn’t get past the idea that, like Android, simple things sometimes take too many steps. Sure, once you’ve used a platform for a while, you develop those tiny muscle memories that let you fly around a device like Mozart on a harpsichord, but for a beginner – even someone like me who spends a lot of time with mobile devices, it was a little daunting. The gestures are cool, but they’re a little strange when you get started. It’s hard to remember what to do at first, because you need to memorize a series of actions; with Android, you actually see the buttons you can press, and with iOS, well, there’s only one. It’s one area where I think Apple found a path of least resistance for new users.

But the single thing that would stop me from making this phone (and any webOS phone for that matter) my daily driver is the lack of software in the App Catalog. The developer base is small, but passionate, and I respect them immensely for embracing the platform, but there are too many gaps for me to be able to use webOS exclusively. Dropbox isn’t natively supported, but I saw an app or two that might work. There’s no 1Password client, which is huge for me. Twitter and Facebook are there, but I have such idiosyncratic needs when it comes to those things, I don’t know if I could find a client I liked. Overall, it’s disappointing that I just can’t seem to find some of the things I rely on heavily every day, and I use my phone in such a specific way that it’s hard for me to just settle for apps that don’t quite do what I need them to.

Ultimately, I hope that webOS can make it; it’s interesting and has a lot to offer. The new hardware seems promising, if HP can get it into the market and in the hands of users. I’ll be curious to see if they can throw the marketing weight and budget behind the new devices the way they need to. My guess is that it ends up being a missed opportunity, but I really do hope I’m dead wrong.