Thursday, August 18, 2011

A few quick thoughts on HP's decision to dump the TouchPad and its webOS platform

The decision today by Hewlett-Packard to discontinue producing products that run on its webOS operating system, including its TouchPad tablets, caught many by surprise, and probably rightly so. It was only a few months ago that HP had touted the OS and promised to bring game changing tablets to market.

The tech sites can argue back and forth about why HP's CEO Leo Apotheker announced this move, I'm more interested in how this impacts the growth of tablet publishing. My conclusion is that it doesn't.
Ever since Apple launched the iPad in April of last year there has been on only one viable tablet product on the market that publishers needed to pay attention to, and that was the iPad. While Google's Android has gained traction on mobile phones, the fact of the matter has been that the Android OS environment has been a mess everywhere. The only reason to develop mobile products for Android has been simply because of its market penetration, even if many users of Android phones may not really use their phones as true smartphones. No matter, it is hard to ignore large numbers.

The same has not been true of tablets, however. And so, in my very often stated opinion, it has been the smart move to develop for the iPad first and let the vendors and software providers worry about other platforms. I think this strategy has worked out, Woodwing and others have all done an excellent job of making sure their bases have been covered even if the other platforms haven't really panned out so far.

The problem in publishing, however, is that as an industry we are still divided into three camps: one, let's call it the "Old New Media" camp, doesn't like the iPad, doesn't understand the iPad and frankly wishes it would go away; the second camp knows they need to get in the game but like everything else, seemingly, wants a cheap and easy way out; and finally we have the adopters, be they large publishing houses or independent publishers.

But few have looked at the iPad and tablet publishing as a really new publishing platform. Even many tablet-only publishers have, at least initially, tried to duplicate what they were used to in print and port that experience over to the tablet. But, luckily for iPad owners, there are others, especially in the area of book publishing, that have explored the new platform as something in and of itself.

A few publishers made a wise decision early on to not launch tablet editions of their print magazines or newspapers but to instead launch independent apps, be they special one-time issues, or completely new products. Reduced staff sizes, and the poor prospects at making large returns, probably ended some of these efforts. It is far easier, in the end, to take what you already have and convert it to a new digital platform. But not surprisingly, many iPad owners simply yawned – if they wanted an exact copy of the print product why wouldn't they simply buy the print product, especially if the publisher wasn't offering a discount for the digital version?

As a result some publishers have pointed at the relatively disappointing iPad subscription sales numbers and pronounced the experiment a failure. But tell that to the developers currently building new businesses on the iPad – just because some publishers haven't figured out the platform doesn't mean everyone is in the same situation.

I still believe that there is both room for, and probably a need for, an alternative to the iPad – not because publishers need to get away from big, bad Apple, but instead because a general expansion of the market of tablet readers for magazines and books would be a good thing. But I'm not obsessed with this the way some tech sites are. If Apple can sell millions more iPads that will work just as well for me. All I want is for the market to reach something some sort of point where I know that a publisher can launch, say, a B2B tablet edition in any industry and know they can reach a good percentage of the market.

So goodbye TouchPad, we hardly knew ya – but luckily we know we're not losing any readers because of your demise.

One last thought: many a tech writer is writing absolutely gleefully about HP's troubles tonight. You might want to remember that should you ever hear that their publications are reducing staff in the future.