Dec 11

The HP Touchpad – Or How Not To Run A Business

You may have heard of the HP TouchPad, the ill-fated iPad competitor that HP sold for about six weeks.

The HP TouchPad

It looks pretty much like it does in the photos above. I was really, really excited by this thing when they announced it. It was going to run WebOS, which is the same thing that runs on the Palm Pre and Palm Pixi phones (which I also really liked). HP bought Palm for one and a quarter billion or so almost entirely to get their hands on WebOS, it was that big a deal. Unlike iOS on the iPad which is really just a terrible interface, a whole bunch of icons on the screen and a single button to minimize and swap between programs (which are also just icons) or Android which is still a little clunky in its implementation of certain things like multitasking, it really does a multitasking user interface with a touch screen in mind.

For instance, to switch between apps you press the button (like the iPad, it has a button at the base of the screen) which shrinks your running app to a smaller version of itself, called a card. You can then swipe left or right to switch between cards or swipe up to close the application and remove the card from the screen. This is actually the same interface the RIM put on the PlayBook, although much more polished in approach. The PlayBook does, though, have touch sensitive screen edges which is really slick, so you just swipe up to shrink the app or swipe from the left or right to move between apps. Same idea, different implementation. The PlayBook does it much much faster, the TouchPad makes it look better.

The TouchPad also has the best notifications system I’ve seen on anything. The notifications pop up and then slide away after a moment. You can then touch the icon at the top of the screen and slide them off to dismiss them, or touch them to open the related application. It’s now been borrowed by Apple with the new iOS 5 implementation which mixes the Android swipe down with the WebOS swipe to dismiss. Apple imporoved it with live notifications (like stock tickers and such) but it was Palm who showed the way.

I’m not here to do a product review. The TouchPad was wicked in concept, but the execution wasn’t great. It was released at the same time as the iPad 2 and priced identically, but it had very few apps, was the size and weight of the iPad 1 but made of plastic, not metal. If it had been released a year earlier it would have been a huge hit, as it was, not so much. It didn’t help that their developer signup process was so damned difficult for non-Americans that I just gave up. You couldn’t even make free apps without a social security number. They helpfully directed you to the IRS website where you could fill out a W8-BEN and some other ridiculous tax forms, but that seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

The TouchPad didn’t sell well… at all. Apparently after six weeks they’d sold less than ten thousand of them in all of Europe. So the new HP CEO (who has since been booted for this ridiculous fiasco) killed the TouchPad and announced that they’d sell all of the many, many tens of thousands that they’d built (remember, they expected this to be huge) for $99. People went nuts trying to buy one. I wandered over to Best Buy and asked about it, they still had a bunch, so I got one and was super impressed. I tried to get one for my mother in law, but by then everyone had sold out. HP’s web site crashed with demand, as did many other retailers. This happened again just a week ago when they sold a final batch on eBay and crashed that! eBay! Crashing that takes serious demand.

But there was one minor problem with the TouchPad. I had it sitting here for a few weeks, all was great, and then I noticed it getting tiny cracks in the plastic case. I looked it up and it turned out I wasn’t the only one experiencing this. I called HP and they were amazing. They sent a pre-paid box by next day delivery to send the device back to their repair centre. Amazing. So I did that, I sent it in and waited. And waited. And waited some more.

After three weeks I got rather worried and I checked my order status online. It showed that they hadn’t received the unit at all. Fortunately Alison still had the UPS tracking number, so I looked it up and sure enough, they had delivered it the day after I sent it. I called HP. They told me that UPS had screwed up. After I argued for a while they agreed to look in to it and said their “admin team” would figure it out and get back to me. I should call back in a couple of days.

I waited three days and called back. They told me the they didn’t have the device, UPS hadn’t delivered it. I pointed out that the tracking indicated that UPS had delivered it. Oh, right, I guess they did, agreed HP. I was put on hold. They contacted the “admin team” again who said that it was fine, it was just going to be updated in the system and I’d hear back from them in a day or two.

I waited, no call from HP. I called them. Apparently it never arrived. UPS lost it… so said HP. I explained all this again, got very frustrated and told them I wasn’t impressed. They assured me that the admin team would find it and make everything right.

I waited another week or so, looked it up, still the status showed that it hadn’t arrived. I called again. This time they couldn’t even find my service order number. The guy said no problem, I’ll just create a new one. No, I explained, my order number was related to a device that they had somewhere in a warehouse, lost. So the guy goes back looking again, finds nothing. I tell him to look harder. He does, finds nothing. I explain that he’s doing it wrong because I’m looking at a screen that shows the order number, he should be able to see it to. After 25 minutes (seriously, I timed it) he found the order and told me that UPS hadn’t delivered it yet. I told him I wanted to talk to a supervisor. Okay, he said, and put me on hold. After ten minutes he comes back and says that the supervisor will call me back because he’s on the phone right now. I said no, that’s fine, how about they give me the supervisor’s phone number instead. No, he said, they can’t do that. I replied that he must have a phone number, his wife must be able to reach him at work somehow, I’m sure she doesn’t call in to the call centre and wait on hold. He said no, there was no way to call. I said fine, HP wants to waste my time, I would do the same. I would happily sit on the phone with the service rep and talk about the weather or sports or anything he wants for as long as it takes for his boss to get on the phone. He put me back on hold. Then the supervisor came on.

When the supervisor came on I’d been on the phone for 45 minutes. I wasn’t in a great mood. I explained what had happened and told him in no uncertain terms that HP had lost my tablet. The solution, I said, was either for them to find the unit immediately, while I stay on the phone, or send me a new one. Either way I was going to receive a tablet tomorrow and that was the end of it. The supervisor agreed in the end that they had lost it and yes, they would send a replacement. They did, I was happy.

Then, a couple of weeks later, I get an automated notice that my TouchPad has been shipped. What is this, I wonder. I check the tracking number they provided and it was the tracking number that I used when I sent the original tablet to them. So what the hell was going on? I checked back in their system against the service order number and now it showed that my tablet was repaired. Very odd, but I had wondered if something like this might not happen. The next day UPS arrives with my original tablet.

So now I have two of them. Purchased for a grand total of $99. That’s $900 off the original retail price.

This is not how to run a business. Clearly they’ve got some incredibly technical guys at HP (or at least at Palm), but it’s just a miracle that they’ve managed to keep their business going at all if this is how they do things. And remember, this is the largest computer company in the world.

The new CEO said they want to get out of the hardware business, go the IBM route and sell services. I think that would be a disaster. I can’t imagine why anyone would trust these guys to build or run their software.

Nov 11

Product placement on VirtualRobin

I am impressed by this thing. I just bought two of them for doing webcasts and they’re great. Also, at just over one pound each they’re easy to take with me when I travel. And the best part is that they’re $34 each.

Behringer 502 - 1.2 pounds of great