Motogoog, WebOS, and the Long, Slow Death of the PC

I realize that I’m more than a week late to this party, but the tech world pretty much got turned on its head last week, and I wouldn’t have any right to call myself a tech journalist if I didn’t add my take on what happened. Granted, I don’t really have much of a right to call myself a tech journalist anyway, but I REALLY wouldn’t have any right if I ignored last week’s big news.

Of course, it would be one thing if there had only been one major, world-altering event that happened last week. But no, there were two. And as I write this, the week technically isn’t over yet, so maybe there will be three before Saturday comes to an end! Probably not though. (Update: There wasn’t.)

The first of these events was the news that Google is buying Motorola. Why is this huge news? Well, Google makes an operating system called Android that is designed for smartphones and tablets. And Motorola makes hardware that runs Android. Technically, Android is open source, which means (in part) that anyone can use it without paying Google a dime. In reality, Google exerts a significant amount of control over Android because they own very desirable pieces of it that are not open source. For example, if you don’t follow Google’s guidelines, your device will not have access to the Android Market, which is the official app store for Android. Of course, Android being open means you can install apps from other sources. In fact, Amazon has a very nice Android app store that anyone can use. But still, there are advantages to going the Google route.

And Android is free even if you do follow Google’s guidelines, which makes it very appealing to OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers). Up until now, the relationship that Google had with OEMs was very similar to the one that Microsoft has with its OEMs, except, of course, Microsoft charges a fee for Windows licenses. But now that Google has announced that they plan to buy Motorola, Google will have the ability to build their own Android devices. Which means that Google’s OEM partners like Samsung and HTC are now going to be competing against it.

Or not. Google claims that they will be running Motorola as a separate business, and that Motorola won’t have any special advantage over other hardware manufacturers. Which may well be true. It’s entirely possible that Google is only buying Motorola because Motorola possesses something like 17,000 patents, and Google covets these patents because they have less than a thousand patents, and they need ammunition to fight the never-ending patent war that is constantly being waged between all of the tech companies.

In any case, that would have been enough big news for one week, but then another bombshell hit on Thursday. HP, the number one PC manufacturer in the world, announced that it was getting out of the PC business. Not only that, but they’re killing off their new WebOS hardware, including the TouchPad, which came out on July 1, and the Pre 3, which hasn’t actually come out yet.

Before I delve into this any more, here’s some background. WebOS is a mobile operating system like Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS. It was originally created by Palm, as part of that company’s last ditch effort to stay relevant alive. The original Palm Pre was well reviewed, but it didn’t sell well. Eventually Palm was bought by HP, which pretty much had the entire tech journalism world scratching its collective head. The thought was that HP was going to try to be the next Apple, in the sense that they were going to build a platform where they controlled both the hardware and the software.

In any case, HP spent about 1.2 billion dollars on Palm, and they definitely had people wondering whether or not they made a good investment. Apparently the answer was no, although it’s possible that HP might still make a profit off of Palm after all. However, in the meantime it looks like HP screwed up big time, and they’re screwing some of their customers in the process. HP is aggressively selling off their entire stock of TouchPads at rock bottom prices, i.e., $99 for a piece of hardware that cost $499 less than two months ago. Oh yeah. I’d be mad if I bought a TouchPad at launch. (Update: HP is actually giving refunds to anybody who bought a TouchPad before last weekend. So maybe I wouldn’t be mad after all.)

But the crazier part of all this to me is that HP is getting out of the PC business. After all, there was always a strong possibility that the HP-Palm merger would end up being a disaster. But HP is the biggest PC manufacturer in the world. And they don’t want to make PCs anymore. Because there isn’t enough money in it. What does that say about the state of the PC industry? And what does this have to do with Google buying Motorola?

Well, the answers to those questions are “nothing good” and “everything”. If the world’s biggest PC maker is abandoning the PC business, then they must not expect to be able to make much money off of PCs in the future. But more broadly, I think these two stories show us that the Post-PC Era is well and truly underway, and only God knows what’s going to happen next. The old Windows model of one company making an OS and shipping it off to OEMs without a care for what happens next seems to have run its course. The days of having to fiddle with settings and reboot and reinstall and uninstall and whatnot to get your computer to work are coming to an end. In the Post-PC Era, things just work, without having to struggle with them. This is the secret of Apple’s success. Not that Apple’s products are perfect, but they work better and are more seemless than anybody else’s products. Google understands this, so they bought Motorola in order to shore up their control of their platform and make it more like Apple’s. HP understands this as well, and they understand that they don’t have the chops to execute this strategy, so they’re abandoning the market.

I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen now, but I’m excited. There’s never been a better time to be a technology enthusiast.

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