Time is money, as the saying goes, and few cautionary tales better exemplify the old adage than Palm, which stands to pay dearly for taking its sweet time fine-tuning webOS, the long-awaited mobile operating system the company finally unveiled during last week's Consumer Electronics Show. Palm first announced it was working on the Linux-based operating system all the way back in April 2007, initially promising to release the platform (often referred to as the Palm OS II, or "Nova") by the end of that year. The first in a series of delays struck a few months later, when Palm said the platform would not appear until sometime in 2008. As recently as late May of '08, the firm still insisted that webOS remained on track for release by year's end--during an appearance at the JP Morgan Tech Show in Boston, Palm CFO Andrew Brown admitted the project had been in the works for close to three years, adding "it has not been an insignificant investment." But in September, Palm finally acknowledged what everyone else already suspected: The operating system would remain under wraps until 2009.
The toll for such a protracted developmental cycle appears massive: In the years since webOS first began taking shape, rival operating systems like Symbian, BlackBerry and Apple's Mac OS X have beaten the existing Palm OS like a rented mule. Late last year, market research firm Gartner reported that the Palm OS now ranks sixth in terms of worldwide smartphone OS market share, claiming just 2.1 percent of the overall market--by comparison, the iPhone, which wasn't even released when Palm first announced webOS's pending arrival, now owns 12.9 percent market share. No wonder that in December, Palm announced that revenues during its second fiscal quarter would fall between $190 million and $195 million, a massive dropoff from the previous fiscal quarter, when the firm reported a loss of $41.9 million on revenue of $366.9 million.
Initial buzz on webOS is certainly favorable--with a few exceptions, most early reviews agree the operating system lives up to expectations. Developed expressly for mobile use, webOS promises users a constant connection to the web; its signature feature is Palm Synergy, which Palm says automatically brings together user information like linked contacts, layered calendars and combined messaging into one single, integrated view. webOS also offers toggling between multiple open applications, customized alerts and a multi-touch UI that Palm says "lets you move easily between activities like flipping through a deck of cards and rearrange items simply by dragging them." No less important, webOS was designed to enable Palm's ecosystem of partners (including developers, hardware vendors and accessories manufacturers) the flexibility to create core solutions to complement the platform and product line. In particular, Palm promises the developer community a rich open environment enabling more efficient application creation--webOS also will allow coders to distribute their apps over-the-air via an on-device Palm application store.