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Ex-Palm CEO Rubinstein wishes HP sale never happened

'Talk about a waste'

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Former Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein is still proud of the work the ill-fated PDA maker did on its webOS smartphone platform, but when asked if he would have done anything differently there's still one thing that sticks in his craw.

"Well, I'm not sure I would have sold the company to HP. That's for sure," Rubinstein told industry newsletter FierceWireless in a recent interview. "Talk about a waste."

The former Apple exec added that the decision to sell was ultimately made by Palm's board and its shareholders, not its CEO. Rubinstein just had to go along. Still, he says, HP's utter mismanagement of Palm proves the sale was a mistake, in hindsight.

"If we had known they were just going to shut it down and never really give it a chance to flourish, what would have been the point of selling the company?" Rubinstein said.

HP bought Palm in 2010 for $1.2bn in cash, at a time when Palm was running low on funds and webOS was struggling to compete with the likes of iOS and Android. The hope was that HP would give Palm the infrastructure and resources it needed to ship a broader line of webOS devices and expand the platform's market share.

Jonathan Rubinstein

Jon Rubinstein, former Palm CEO

Instead, less than 18 months after acquiring Palm, HP announced that it was discontinuing production of all webOS devices – including the HP TouchPad fondleslab, which had been shipping for mere weeks.

For a while, HP entertained delusions that it would sell off webOS to another vendor, but found no takers. Then it tried to punt it off to the open source community, where it received only lukewarm reception. Out of ideas, HP gave up, handing pink slips to most of its webOS software staff.

Frustrated webOS fans held out hope that HP – or somebody – would revive the platform, but other than a few halfhearted attempts at keeping it alive as an open source project, nothing much came of it.

The miserable tale of webOS at HP finally came to an end in February, when South Korean electronics maker LG agreed to buy all webOS-related intellectual property and take on HP's few remaining webOS engineers, with a mind to adapting the platform for use in smart TVs.

To Rubinstein that's all a shame, because it means HP missed an opportunity to produce smartphones and tablets based on a unique and compelling mobile OS.

"We did a lot of things that were very, very innovative," he told FierceWireless. "Obviously, multitasking, notifications, Synergy, how we handled the multiple cards. There's a long list of stuff we did that has been adopted by Microsoft, Apple and Android ... I don't think anyone has implemented it as well as we did yet, but clearly they're all heading down that direction."

But if anything hurt webOS as much as HP's bungling, Rubinstein says, it was interference and missteps by the wireless carriers. Shortly before Palm was ready to launch webOS, Verizon and Vodafone both pulled out of handset deals at the last minute. That left webOS devices exclusive to Sprint, which hurt their market penetration.

What's more, Rubinstein says, while the carriers seemed positive whenever Palm would demo webOS to them, they couldn't leave well enough alone, insisting on things like custom address books and other carrier-specific features.

"We always argued with the carriers. They wanted to have their specific goofy services and stuff, and they would pressure us to try and support their stuff when we didn't want to," Rubinstein says. "All of that stuff has gone away. No one uses that stuff anymore."

These days, Rubinstein no longer takes a direct role in the mobile market, but he is still involved, sitting on the boards of both Amazon and mobile chipmaker Qualcomm.

"I'm a big believer in mobile and integration of the home, and wearable computing and all that stuff, and having it all tied up in the cloud," he says. "There's sort of a common theme across those companies. I think they're uniquely positioned for the future of where things are going."

Whether you think those statements add fuel to the oft-repeated rumors that Amazon is developing a custom smartphone, we leave up to you. If Amazon is readying such a device, however, one thing's a sure bet: It won't be based on webOS. ®

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