I have been a Palm fan since the beginning. I have owned a Palm III, a Palm V, a Treo and a Pre. The first software ever shipped by Funambol was an app for Palm OS in 2002 (ooh, the memories). I have been close to the Palm world for years, including the beginning of webOS with Funambol. I am no expert and I have no inside information, of course, but I have been thinking about the demise of webOS for a few days and I finally made up my mind.
webOS failed because it missed the Geek Factor.
The OS is absolutely great. Well designed, fantastic UI, fast enough (it could have been faster, but that was a limit of the HW as well). Missing a personal cloud element - which is key these days - but they had transparent sync at least (and full cloud backup). What was it missing?
It was missing developers.
It is hard for me to say that a phone failed because it lacked developers, since I always said that a mobile device is a fashion accessory. These days, though, with the devices looking very similar one to the other, the apps count. The cloud integration counts. Bluntly, Geeks rule again.
Think about it. In the PC world, you would ask a Geek (with a capital G, there are many phonies out there ;-) for a suggestion on what to buy. In mobile, you would just pick the coolest phone in the store. Now that the smartphones look the same, the pendulum has swung back to the Geeks. You get them to develop for your phone, you have apps. You get them excited, they will promote your device to their friends. They are back.
Take Android for example. Was the G1 the worst device ever built? Probably. What about the Geeks? They bought it. They developed on it. They evangelized it. It was open source. Once good looking Android phones came out, the apps were there. The consumers were ready to go.
The Pre ignored the developers. It was a closed phone. Do you remember the creepy ad with the girl? I do. Not very attractive to a Geek, sorry. The Pre was a phone built for girls (with a mirror in the back), while the developer world is still (sadly) male.
The genius of the combo Verizon-Motorola-Google with the Droid was to go for the Geek. The phone was black, sturdy, incredibly male. The ads were all about black and bold and violent. It was a male phone. A Geek phone (as you know, Geeks like sci-fi and the Droid was all about it). It had the Geek Factor.
It is sad to see webOS go. I asked HP long ago to open source it and I still think it would have been a great idea. It would have captivated developers. Honestly, it is still a valid one today. I do not think there is a chance for webOS to regain the Geek Factor, but it would be a start.