Jon Rubinstein and Palm: A Retrospect

Rubinstein with Josh Topolsky

Ruby and I

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ong before I became a user of Open Source software, I used a Mac.  Specifically one running Mac OS 9.2.2.  I didn’t have alot of money, so my 266Mhz Beige G3 was what got me by.  It still had a little heat to it, and one of the most modern things it could do -at the time- was play Quicktime videos.  It was at this time I saw my first WWDC Keynote.  If I remember correctly, it was 2003.  They used that forum to announce the G5 Power Mac.

It was during this presentation that I became obsessed with Steve Jobs ability to captivate a crowd by saying nothing at all.  His phrasing and overall timing, along with the image that he projected was so powerful that he could easily have been an evangelist and brought the same successes to a mega church.  But this article isn’t about Steve Jobs; It’s about someone who thought they could emulate Steve Jobs and share in those success.  It is that failure to captivate an audience they may have been the silent nail in Palm’s coffin and the flaming arrow that has cause HP to implode and contract into a company that may be on it’s way to irrelevance.

His phrasing and overall timing, along with the image that he projected was so powerful that he could easily have been an evangelist and brought the same successes to a mega church.  But this article isn’t about Steve Jobs; It’s about someone who thought they could emulate Steve Jobs and share in those success.

During that WWDC conference, Jon, VP of engineering at the time, had a segment where he spoke about this process of designing the G5, the way the chassis controlled airflow and dissipated heat and more importantly, how a G5 with dual-processors was pretty much the fastest thing in the world.  He thoroughly sold the product, and I was hooked.

Rubinstein’s Career

Jon started his career with HP in the late 1970s in an engineering capacity.  He was successful there and was soon working on large-scale HP workstations, but it wan’t until 1986 when he would leave Colorado for Silicon Valley where he would work for start-up Ardent Computer.  It was while working with Ardent that he met Steve Jobs.

After an extended vacation, Jobs had become a consultant for the computer that had made his a household name.  That company, like NeXT, was on the brink of failure losing $816 million dollars in 1997 yet somehow Jobs had persuaded Rubinstein to join the team.

In 1990, Steve Jobs was struggling to makes waves in the high-end production market with his Company NeXT.  Jobs approached Rubinstein and asked for his efforts as head of hardware engineering for the floundering corporation.  Rubinstein of course accepted, because it is impossible to say no to him and the 2 worked together on the NeXT Workstation, a high-end RISC/Unix based machine that never came to fruition.  Some years later, he made the biggest move of his life.

After an extended vacation, Jobs had become a consultant for the computer that had made his a household name.  That company, like NeXT, was on the brink of failure losing $816 million dollars in 1997 yet somehow Jobs had persuaded Rubinstein to join the team.  It was hear that Rubinstein made the biggest waves of his career, leading the development of the fastest selling device of all time, the iPod.  He was also the catalyst for the development of iTunes.  Despite all of this, the made one wave that was bigger than them all.

Rubinstein Hits the Big Time

Jon was asked to come to Palm.  Palm, like Apple in 1997 and NeXT before it was on the brink.  They needed someone with vision, passion and proven results.  In 2008 Palm had an aged operating system –much like Mac OS 9 in the late 90′s– and they were losing market share to RIMM and Apple.  They had failed at produced Palm OS 6, or ‘Cobalt’, much in the same way that Apple had failed to produced ‘Copeland’.  It must have seemed that Jon was a sort of silent savior or invisible puppeteer that could a write the script of a company’s future in favor of success, no matter what.

Then a very special day came for Palm.  1/9/2009.  This is the day that Palm gave their keynote at CES 2009 and what was rumored to be the unveiling of Palm OS 6, or at least some kind of Linux based successor to their current product line-up.  That is exactly what we got.  Web OS.  I watch the keynote and was thoroughly inpressed.  Having already been a Palm user, there was a little bias but overall I regarded the Web OS functionality shown as an achievement in usability.  There was however, one thing that I didn’t notice…

Jon tried to be Steve instead of Jon and he ruined Palm and HP.

The End of Palm

That thing was Jon Rubinstein’s inability to interact with an audience.  This goes double for Ed Colligan, but hey, do you even remember who he is?  Flash-forward 1 year later.  January 2010.  This was supposed to be the year for Palm.  They met with limited success with Sprint.  The partnership was meant to be mutually beneficial given the troubles that both companies were having at the time but it didn’t help.  No one had a Pre and no one cared, but in January the device stepped up to the big leagues; Verizon.  It was at the Palm keynote that Jon delivered the most lack-luster and painful to watch presentation I have seen, ever.  He paced, he gave pause, he never said “um”, and he did it all as a second-rate Steve Jobs.  He unveiled Web OS as a gaming platform and at the same time showed off some incredible performance and functionality, but when we would paused for applause, there would be dead-air.  The worst part is that he would pause just as long as Steve Jobs would…  He failed to sell the product.  The product failed.

That same year, the remains of Palm were sold to HP for 1.2 billion and a promise that WebOS is just as strong as ever and still every bit as revolutionary.  HP took the bait (patent portfolio) and attempted to launch a full line of WebOS products under the watch of Rubinstein, the Touchpad, the Pre3 and the Veer.  All very awesome products.  And though they were just released over the summer, they are no more.

Jon tried to be Steve instead of Jon and he ruined Palm and HP.

 

 


Dean Howell

Dean Howell has over a decade of experience with Linux and nearly 2 decades of experience with computers in general. Currently, Dean is Editor-in-chief of The Powerbase and also works for one of the world's largest providers of Linux-based NVRs.

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