Rubenstein: Palm's ceiling limited without HP

Former Palm CEO Jon Rubenstein is proud of what they accomplished at Palm, but the company faced far too uphill a battle to make it as a solo act.

HP's Jon Rubenstein flashes good-natured exasperation at a question from All Things D's Kara Swisher at the Dive Into Mobile conference.
HP's Jon Rubenstein flashes good-natured exasperation at a question from All Things D's Kara Swisher at the Dive Into Mobile conference. Tom Krazit/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--Former Palm CEO and current Hewlett-Packard employee Jon Rubenstein is proud of the product his former company created but said there was no way Palm could turn it into a smash hit.

WebOS, the mobile operating system that along with the Pre revived interest in Palm over the last few years, is actually the most forward-thinking mobile OS on the market, Rubenstein said today here at the D: Dive Into Mobile conference, dismissing comments made yesterday by Google's Andy Rubin that Palm belonged in the "old" category of mobile players. While's true that the old Palm OS was ancient and undernourished, Palm's decision to base WebOS on a clean slate of Web technologies actually means it has less legacy code than competitors such as iOS and Android, which at their core owe much to Unix and Java, he said.

"We took a real leap forward in doing what we did," Rubenstein said. "It's very similar to what the Chrome guys are doing at Google right now," he said, going so far as to call Rubin's Android "more backward-looking" than WebOS.

Still, for all that work, Palm wasn't going to be able to produce a mass-market hit on its own, Rubenstein said. That's partly because Palm reentered a fast-moving market a little too late and partly because its competitors include some of the biggest technology companies on the planet.

Enter HP. Rubenstein resisted All Things D's Kara Swisher's repeated questions about the identity of Palm suitors but said "six companies were very interested in Palm." HP won the competition because "it made the most sense" to join up with HP, both because of its size and because it needed a mobile strategy badly, he said.

HP plans to bring out several products next year based on WebOS, including phones and tablets, Rubenstein said. Interestingly, he suggested that the Palm brand may not get carried over to the new products.

"HP needs to build a brand around what it's going to do going forward," Rubenstein said. He seemed personally ambivalent about the decision, seeing good things and bad things in the Palm brand.

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