Rubinstein on HP's purchase of Palm: 'Talk about a waste'

Jon Rubinstein

with former Palm chief Jon Rubinstein

Several technology blogs noted Monday that multiple elements of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) new iOS 7, including multitasking and Safari's tabbed browsing, have hallmarks of Palm's webOS design. As part of a forthcoming feature FierceWireless will produce that catches up with former top wireless executives, FierceWireless Editor Phil Goldstein spoke with Jon Rubinstein, former CEO of Palm and a former executive at Apple, about what he's doing these days, the influence webOS has had on other mobile platforms, and whether he would have done anything differently.

FierceWireless: What are you doing now? How do you spend your time?

Rubinstein: I'm on two boards. I'm on Amazon and Qualcomm. And there's a logic behind those two boards. 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. There's sort of a common theme across those companies. I think they're uniquely positioned for the future of where things are going. That's how I spend some of my time. I help out some small companies with some time. And I'm taking some time off as well right now.

FierceWireless: It seems like iOS 7 is taking lots of multitasking cues from webOS. How do you think that platform, webOS, influenced other mobile platforms?

Rubinstein: It's not just mobile platforms. If you look at the notifications on Mac OS X, it looks just like webOS, too. We did a lot of things that were very, very innovative. 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. Our over-the-air updates and mechanism has been updated by everybody. Our whole Synergy concept is now becoming much more common. I don't think anyone has implemented it as well as we did yet, but clearly they're all heading down that direction.

FierceWireless: And with Synergy, you're talking about the combination of contact information as well as messaging into single apps?

Rubinstein: Yeah, and from all the different sources. So not just in one walled garden but you're able to tie together Facebook and Gmail and…all the different approaches.

FierceWireless: Looking back, if you could do things over again with the rollout of webOS, would you do anything differently?

Rubinstein: Well, I'm not sure I would have sold the company to HP [Hewlett-Packard]. That's for sure. Talk about a waste. Not that I had any choice because when you sell a company you don't get to decide that. Obviously, the board and shareholders decide that. 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? I think the deal we had with Verizon really hurt us, but who knew that at the time? These things are all hindsight.

FierceWireless: Before Palm was sold to HP, do you think looking back it would have been better to have sold webOS phones through multiple carriers besides Sprint at the beginning?

Rubinstein: We would have loved to, but that wasn't the reality. We almost had deals with Verizon and with Vodafone, and in the last minute both of those guys decided not to go through with the deal, so we had a deal with Sprint. It wasn't like we made a choice of, Oh, we're going to go with Sprint. We were negotiating with everybody. And the Sprint deal was the best deal we could get at the time. Palm was dying when I got there. It wasn't like we had the pick of the litter. Everybody forgets that Palm was pretty much dead when we did the recapitalization. It had no future at the time.

FierceWireless: What new perspective on the industry have you gained since you left HP?

Rubinstein: I don't know if I have a perspective, but clearly, a lot the stuff we were trying to do with Palm and a lot of things we told carriers they were wasting effort on has turned out to be true.

FierceWireless: Like what?

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

FierceWireless: Are you talking about things like carrier-branded video or messaging services?

Rubinstein: Exactly. Or their own address books. Forcing us to take our address book and expose it to them. The industry went away from them. I think we were also very prophetic about the growth of the smartphone market. I think that's clearly been validated. If you go back at look at our original premise for a lot of the stuff we did at Palm when I got there, I think it's all really played out as expected. The carriers are becoming more of a service provider as far as providing Internet connectivity vs. other stuff. Customers are getting a little more choice than they used to get, which is a good thing.