Post-Mortem: Lessons Learned From HP’s TouchPad Fire Sale

Though we’ve played with some of the iPad’s competitors over the past two years, we’ve passed on formally reviewing them since before the iPad was even announced—they come and go, rarely making any mark, and just haven’t seemed worth the time to write about. As we noted in this February 2009 discussion of Amazon’s Kindle, it seemed obvious a year before the iPad was announced that Apple could blow the Kindle away with “nothing more than… a quick and dirty rewrite to [iOS] for a higher resolution display,” and a bigger battery for a bigger touchscreen, which is pretty much exactly what happened. Last year, Apple defined the tablet market. Today, it all but owns that market. And regardless of whether or not this momentum would otherwise have continued in 2012, last week’s epic Hewlett-Packard consumer-side collapse and Motorola acquisition announcements seem to guarantee that it will. Apple’s rivals are so intimidated that they’re literally falling apart or walking away from competing, seemingly not thinking twice about the consequences of abandoning just-released products and still growing markets.

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HP’s TouchPad was a particularly noteworthy casualty for two reasons. First, the hardware and software contained as much Apple DNA as HP’s Palm unit was able to extract from the company, including formerly key Apple executives, designers, and engineers. Second, the TouchPad was backed by the world’s largest computer vendor—one that sold more PCs than anyone else on the planet, and had no obvious reason (apart from mismanagement) to walk away from the mobile or personal computer business. If any product could have been a rival to the iPad, with enough technology, distribution, and marketing wherewithal to make it happen, the TouchPad would have been it. But it wasn’t: failures in engineering, pricing, and marketing brought it to market, then just as quickly to the grave.


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What follows isn’t a review of the TouchPad, but rather a brief postmortem on an iPad wannabe that coulda been a contender, but instead took an early fall and got pulled from the ring. We grabbed a TouchPad after the price fell to a staggering $99 (16GB) or $149 (32GB) closeout this weekend, going into the purchase with the sort of expectations such low price tags carry: “how bad could it be?” And yet the experience of using the TouchPad led to some really interesting discoveries, including some often overlooked facets of iPad ownership that we’d taken for granted before. Read on for all the details.

Let’s start with five good things about the TouchPad and WebOS that Apple could learn from.

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1. Account Synergy. Yes, WebOS puts up a bunch of unpleasant barriers for first-time users (see the subsequent discussion of EULAs and Loading), but it does a nice job of leveraging your existing Facebook and other accounts for data to populate the TouchPad without connecting to a computer. As just a couple of examples, WebOS brings photos directly from Facebook galleries into the Photos & Videos app, and leverages contacts from other services to build a usable virtual Rolodex in its Contacts application. Many services are supported; just being able to import data from Facebook alone would make iOS better.


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2. Keyboard and Just Type. The WebOS keyboard includes half-height number keys above its letters – a great addition in and of itself – and uses keys that auto-shift from upper to lower case rather than remaining perpetually upper-case, a nice display of how virtual keypads can go beyond physical ones on a tablet. Additionally, the Just Type feature keeps a Spotlight-like search and creation bar at the top of TouchPad’s home screen, enabling you to start typing something and then choose the application the text will go into (say, a memo) or be used to search with (Google, Wikipedia, Twitter, etc.).


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3. Charging. HP beat Apple to offering an inductive wireless charging solution, Touchstone, and uses a tiny little Micro-USB port for charging and synchronization. While the Touchstone is sold separately and at a ridiculous price ($80 just to charge? Seriously?), the appeal of a simple “lay it down in either orientation” charging solution is undeniable, and Apple surely has to be looking for its own “smaller connector” wired sync option at this point, too. If AirPlay matured enough that Apple could cut the Dock Connector cord altogether for future speaker and docking accessories, going to Micro-USB wouldn’t be a totally crazy next step.


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4. Notifications. Apple’s challenges in implementing a clean notifications system have been somewhat surprising—even in iOS 5, the pull-down tray seems inelegant by the company’s legendary standards. HP got part of the notifications system right in WebOS. While the TouchPad’s top of screen bar is a little taller than the iPad’s, it’s put to great use as a place to let you know when e-mails have come in, when background tasks are complete, and infrequently what settings are available for a given app. By trying to keep the bar as small on the iPad as it was on the iPod touch and iPhone, Apple missed a clear opportunity to make the top of the screen useful for something other than basic time, wireless signal, and battery indicators.


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5. UI Class. Say what you will about the way the WebOS interface feels, but it looks great. The font choices are wonderful, and the use of overlays, drop shadows, and animations are occasionally (well, rarely) at least as good as Apple’s. HP achieved a nice compromise between a Windows and iOS-like look, avoiding the obvious use of Helvetica, Myriad, and other parroting elements by choosing typefaces that are familiar but new. So even when, say, the Messaging application feels feature-bare by comparison with AIM for iPad or Apple’s Messages application, it’s laid out well and has clean, non-gimmicky design elements. Sound effects similarly are restrained and pleasant rather than annoying.

So that’s most of the good part. Not surprisingly, there are some serious issues with the TouchPad, even as a $99 device, which were hard to believe when we saw them.


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1. The Screen. HP’s using a 9.7” IPS display with the same 1024×768 resolution as both iPads, and it generally looks nice—plenty bright, with the same sort of color gamut and viewing angles you’d expect from an iPad, with similar fingerprint issues. But then HP cheapens it: the touch controls can literally be seen floating above the screen on certain angles as a grid of tiny dots, elsewhere manifesting as diagonal lines. Apple would have never, ever let that stand. And obviously didn’t.


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2. The Home Button. Apple chose a circle for the single most commonly-pressed physical button on all of its touchscreen devices. Others have used rounded squares. Everybody generally has a mark in the center of that button so you know where to find it. For some reason, HP picked a pill that’s so small that your finger will inevitably rub against two sharp lines every time you go to press it, which makes you want to avoid touching the button. HP also put a line-shaped light into the button that illuminates under certain conditions, which aren’t completely obvious but should be, since it blends into the face of the tablet and can’t easily be spotted otherwise. If Apple had picked such an awful design, people would be praying for the button to disappear.


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3. The Casing. Apple designed the original iPad to feel like an oversized original iPhone or miniature MacBook, and carried that through to the iPad 2 rather than cheapening the case—a move that established the iPads as premium-quality products. Instead, HP went straight for cheap with the TouchPad, which feels like an oversized iPhone 3G or 3GS, minus the metal bezel. As with the Home Button, HP used pill-shaped holes and buttons all over the device, including holes on the sides that turn out to be twin left-mounted speakers, and a pop-out tray for what might have been a SIM card holder, but now is just a weird serial number badge for the device. The first thought TouchPad generates in the hands of anyone who has used an iPad is an “ugh, this should be cheaper than the iPad.” Yet it launched at the same price, which is crazy.


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4. The Camera. Everyone took for granted that the iPad 2 would get at least one camera application when it launched with at least one camera. As it turned out, Apple built it with twin cameras and three camera apps—Camera, FaceTime, and Photo Booth. HP doesn’t include a “Camera” app. Or a Photo Booth app. Or a rear camera. Instead, the front-facing camera is higher-resolution than Apple’s at 1.3MP, but in practice, it can’t be used for much. You need to download a third-party app just to capture pictures with it, and the refresh rate is poor. An integrated Skype application lets you do lower-resolution video chats. It feels like no one thought any of this through.

5. EULAs and Loading. If you like to read licensing terms, you’ll love the TouchPad. Before you can use the device, or some of the included apps, you’ll need to look at and agree to some lengthy licenses. Compounding that, TouchPad apps—even the built-in ones—take a while to load. Apple cut out all these types of delays so effectively that users asked “really?” when it said that the iPad 2 was faster than the iPad. The TouchPad feels as if WebOS is missing big pieces of the software foundation that let iPad apps load quickly. And booting the device is slower, too.


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6. Apps + App Crashes. It was easy to take for granted that the iPad and iPad 2’s built-in apps would just work when you ran them. The version of WebOS that shipped on the TouchPad was insanely buggy, and the latest, probably final version (3.0.2) isn’t great, either. Every time we load up the Bing-based Maps application, there’s a 50% chance that nothing will load and we’ll have to restart the app. It also asks every time for permission to use location services, which is sort of implicit in using a mapping application. Other apps have just shut down in the middle of playing videos; clicking on the Kindle application, which turns out to require a download, led to crash after crash on our first attempt until we reset the device. Multitasking leads to “too many cards are open” notices, and then a complete device crash and restart. The iPad made it easy to assume bare competence; TouchPad undoes that. And let’s not even get started on the size of HP’s App Catalog, or the fact that it leans heavily on web sites, such as Twitter and YouTube, rather than having dedicated apps.


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7. The Home Screen Paradigm. Apple’s reliance on a Home Screen full of applications just made sense for the iPad because so many users knew it from the iPhone and iPod touch. Hit the Home Button and you’re back to your collection of apps, no matter where you are. HP shifts that paradigm to something that initially feels smarter—and is in one way—but then winds up feeling like a step back to Microsoft Windows.


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Hit the TouchPad’s Home Button and you’re shown a scrollable collection of cards that represent different apps, plus a dock at the bottom of the screen with your favorite several apps and an arrow button. What’s neat is that you can switch between the app cards sort of like OS X Lion’s Mission Control switching between desktops, and WebOS stacks like apps atop each other, so you can tap on the edge of a semi-obscured window to bring it to the front, swipe up to close an app, and so on. It’s a nice multitasking paradigm for tablets. But if you want access to all of your other apps, you have to touch the tray’s arrow button. That calls up what looks like a return to Windows folders, complete with way too many app-like icons for settings, segregated folders of pre-installed and downloaded apps, and a “favorites” folder. Between the loading times and tab switches you have to go through here, it’s uglier than iOS, but not for lack of trying.


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8. The Lack of iTunes. Everyone gripes about iTunes these days, but without it, syncing media content to the TouchPad sort of sucks. HP’s Play application is (and apparently will remain) in beta form, promising only to sync music to the TouchPad. Handling videos and photos turns out to be an entirely separate challenge. It’s hard to appreciate how difficult it can be to watch one of your videos on a tablet until you start searching Google for tips on putting videos onto the TouchPad and see that people are, in 2011, still having conversations about which folders you have to create and where they need to be for the device to recognize them. On a related note, TouchPad’s separate Music and Photos & Videos apps suck from a UI perspective by comparison with the iPad’s, and that’s saying something, as the iPad’s never blew us away.

9. Sensors. The accelerometer on TouchPad always seems to be running behind actual changes, so when you turn the device, the screen takes a second or two to rotate. HP’s automatic brightness adjustments don’t feel smooth. Touchscreen responsiveness is good enough to let you see with a radiating dot where you’ve touched, but not enough to register every button press—it sometimes takes two or three presses to make something work properly. Is it the software or the sensors? Maybe both.


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10. Lots of Other Little Things. Even though the 1.2GHz CPU in the TouchPad is faster than the one in either iPad, Apple’s software optimizations make all the difference in user experience—yet another demonstration of the worthlessness of raw specs these days. On the TouchPad, even pinching to zoom feels labored, moving in less than smooth increments as you contract and expand your fingers. If you open a PDF document in one app, you’ll see an additional card-like window open to display it, rather than just nestling the document within the app you were using before. This just wastes time. Audio calling using the Phone & Video Calls application teases you with a dialer and ringing sounds that make everything seem hunky-dory—until a call doesn’t go through, and you’re told that you have to buy Skype credits. There’s even a Voicemail button that doesn’t work, telling you to connect a WebOS phone to access your voicemails. Apple hides buttons unless they work, rather than using them as opportunities to sell you more hardware.

This list could go on and on—the TouchPad’s packaging, battery management, lack of accessories, number of apps, even greater fingerprint susceptibility, et cetera. All of these things are so sub-Apple that it’s obvious that virtually no one given the choice between an iPad or a TouchPad would ever opt for HP’s version at the same price. But what about for $99 or $149? Well, that’s where it becomes interesting. We’ve talked with a number of people over the last few days, trying to see if anyone was interested in buying a TouchPad at fire sale pricing, and we were shocked by the lack of enthusiasm. One of our contributors went to hunt a unit down over the weekend, and noted that the lines were longer and more enthusiastic at Apple Stores for $500-$830 tablets than for HP’s $99-$149 versions—something that goes without saying, but still bears mention under these circumstances. Another person who didn’t have an iPad said that he was waiting for the iPad 3 at full price rather than buying a discounted TouchPad. While tens or hundreds of thousands of TouchPads were sold over the weekend, many of them appear to have been purchased for arbitrage or tinkering rather than personal use and enjoyment. Not much more needs to be said than that. At least for now, Apple has won, and it’s going to take nearly giving away tablets for its rivals to have a chance of catching up.