We just had a chance to speak to departing HP / webOS exec Jon Rubinstein about his time at Palm and HP, and what he plans to do down the road. Jon was already in Mexico taking what seems to be a much needed break from the mad dash that's been his life for the last four years or so. We touch on a wide range of topics, from Jon's thoughts on an open source webOS, his experience with four different CEOs, and his plans for the future (hint, he's not retiring). It's a pretty candid interview, so read on for the whole story.
Is this something that's been in the works, or a recent decision?
This has been in the works for a while - when we got acquired I promised Mark, Shane, and Todd that I would stick around for 12 to 24 months. Just before we launched the TouchPad, I told Todd that it was going to be time for me to move on after the launch. Todd asked me to stick around and help them with the webOS transition, and he didn't know it at the time, but the PSG getting spun out, whatever is going on with that. I really like Todd, so I told him I'd stick around and give him advice and help out. But now that everything is settled and we've figured out what's happening with everything and everybody — I've done what I said was going to do and it's time to move on.
So this was the plan from the beginning? I mean, things didn't go as planned - was your agreement from the start to leave, that was always the plan?
Yeah. That was always the plan. Look who knows? You can't ever predict the future. But the conversation Todd and I had, get the TouchPad out, webOS on the TouchPad, and at some time after that I'm going to move on, but we'll see what happens. It was never definitive or firm, but Todd was cool with that.
"HP wasn't in good enough shape on its own to be able to support the effort."
But it's not inconceivable that you might have stayed on if it went off without a hitch?
Completely speculative. I have no idea. When I told Todd once the TouchPad went out that I didn't want to run the thing anymore — who knew if it was going to be a success or not a success. The path I was on predated that. That's why the transition to DeWitt was so quick. We'd been talking about it for months. It was decided before the TouchPad shipped.
There were things that didn't work out the way everyone expected — can you talk about what caused the issues?
I don't think it really matters at this point. It's old history at this point.
You don't want to talk about Leo?
Nah. We built an amazing OS in webOS. It's very advanced, it's where things are going. But we ran out of runway, and we ended up at HP and HP wasn't in good enough shape on its own to be able to support the effort. I had four CEOs! Mark acquired us, Cathie Lesjak took over as the interim CEO, then Leo, and now Meg.
And it wasn't even that long ago you got acquired!
I did this for 19 months.
So what's next? You probably want to take time off...
Not want to, that's what I'm doing.
You going to Mexico?
That's where you're calling right now.
So you're having a margarita as we speak?
Nah, it's too early in the day for a margarita. I just finished my workout. I'm gonna go for a swim, have a little lunch...
But you're a creative guy, an ambitious guy — will you get back in this game at some point?
Of course! I'm not retiring or anything. I've never really retired. I'm gonna take a little break for a while, take my time, figure out what I want to do next — I mean this has been a four and half year burn. What we accomplished in four and half years has been amazing. And I don't think people understand that — what we did accomplish during that time frame was amazing. You know, webOS got its early start about six months before I got to Palm. They were just getting going. It wasn't what webOS is today. It was something different. We evolved it along the way, but it was an enormous amount of work for a large group of people for many, many years. So four and a half years... I'm gonna take a break.
"It was an enormous amount of work for a large group of people for many years."
Wait, did I just hear a webOS alert tone in the background?
Yeah, I just got a text message.
So you're still using a webOS device?
I use my Veer!
You're still using your Veer!?
Yeah - I keep telling everybody.
You know, there are a lot of things you did that I thought were awesome, but I cannot understand your love of these tiny phones. Why do you like the Veer so much?
You and I have different usage patterns. I carry a Veer and TouchPad. If I want to do big emails, and surf the web, I'd rather have TouchPad sized screen. But if I'm making phone calls and doing IMs, the Veer is perfect, and it takes up no space in my pocket. Except for you tech guys, every time I pull this out of my pocket people say, 'what's that!?'.
So we're the ones with the problems?
[Laughs] Look, one product doesn't fit all. That's why you have Priuses and Hummers.
So you're going to keep using a webOS device? You're not going to get an iPhone or a Windows Phone?
You tell me. When's the iPhone 5 coming out, and what's it going to do for me? Obviously, as the technology moves forward I'll have to move to something new. When the time comes I'll figure out what product I want to use.
Q: You're not going to RIM? A: Canada is the wrong direction
When you come back to work, do you think you'll go to this space again? Or has working in mobile exhausted you?
No no, I think the future is mobile. Obviously there's going to be stuff that comes post mobile, there'll be a next wave. It could very well be home integration, but mobile's going to continue to be really important. But I have no idea what I'm going to do next. I haven't spent a minute thinking about it.
So you're not going to go to RIM and fix them up?
Uhh [long pause] you know, Canada is the wrong direction for me my friend. It's cold up there [laughs]. I went to college in upstate New York, and after six and a half years in upstate New York... never again.
Yeah it doesn't seem like the kind of place you would enjoy.
It brings to mind that scene from the movie about the Jamaican bobsled team...
Yeah, when they get off the airplane, and they've never seen snow before?
You're basically one of the bobsled guys.
How do you feel about an open source webOS?
We were already on the path to open source Enyo, as a cross development platform. That was already in the plans, so I think it's a good thing.
So you're happy it's not been killed, obviously.
Of course. I put blood, sweat, and tears into this thing. And look, I think it had tremendous potential, if people put some real effort into it, I think you will see a resurgence of devices at some point.
You think there'll be new webOS devices?
Well yeah. I don't know from whom, but sure. There are a lot of companies that need an OS that can really call their own.
You don't know of any companies right now do you?
Nah, you're fishing! If you want to go fishing, come down here and we'll go out on the boat.
I don't know if I want to hook a fish...
I'm with you, I grew up in New York City... but when they sashimi it that night it's delicious.