Apple, Palm Both Lost Their Way, Says Rubinstein

HP Palm's Jon Rubinstein talked about working at Apple and Palm, two hardware and software makers who found themselves the victim of mismanagement in evolving markets.

SAN FRANCISCO -- HP Palm's Jon Rubinstein has a unique resume, working for two companies he acknowledged "lost their way," he told the crowd at the Web 2.0 Summit here Nov. 16.

Those would be Apple, where he helped bring the iPod music player to market, and Palm, where as CEO he presided over the sale of the smartphone maker to HP this year in a deal that closed July 1.

Rubinstein told his tale at the behest of show host John Battelle in a keynote interview Nov. 16.

Rubinstein said he joined Steve Jobs to run hardware engineering at the failed high-end computer venture NeXT in 1990.

NeXt "ran out of time," Rubinstein said, adding that isn't unusual for a company trying to innovate. The software ended up becoming the foundation of Mac OS.

Rubinstein then joined Apple in 1997. "It was a disaster," he said, adding that he arrived six months before Jobs retuned to resurrect the company's fortunes. "It had lost its way, it had lost its focus, innovation. It was really terrible."

After playing with music players he found to be "awful," he and his team built the iPod. Under Rubinstein, the iPod became a worldwide sensation; it is the top-selling music player of all time.

But Rubinstein did the unthinkable, especially viewed through the lens of Jobs.

He retired from Apple in 2006 only to resurface at Palm in 2007 to run the struggling company, which was itself troubled after riding the coattails of its popular Treo smartphone. There he helped bring an integrated OS stack to market to rival Apple's iPhone.

"I'm definitely off the [Jobs'] Christmas list," Rubinstein joked. "But you have to remember that Palm in many ways created this space," with the Treo.

"By birthright, Palm should have been very successful... but it lost its way. It's a very similar story to what happened with Apple."

The circle was complete; Rubinstein joined the troubled Apple to help turn it around, retired, then returned to do the same at HP.

Rubinstein helped usher the Palm Pre to market but that device didn't catch on with consumers, whipped as it was by Apple's popular iPhone at AT&T and Google Android smartphones at Verizon Wireless.

Palm eventually entered into negotiations to be acquired by HP. Now Rubinstein, who works for Todd Bradley in Palm's global business unit at HP, is bringing the webOS 2.0-based Pre 2 to market from the parent company where he began his computer engineering career 30 years ago.

The smartphone, due next year in the United States, includes Just Type search features and multitasking he said should give Apple iPhone, Google Android and Windows Phone 7 devices a run for their money.

However, he stressed HP and Palm wouldn't stop at smartphones. HP will put webOS 2.0 on tablet computers, printers and other devices. "We've got some other ideas in the pipeline we're not ready to talk about yet," he said.

Ironically, Rubinstein will be bringing Pre 2 and HP webOS tablets to a market where the iPhone and Apple's iPad is already dominant. WebOS devices will also have to compete with the Android army of smartphones and tablets.

But he doesn't want people to overstate the competitive dynamic between Apple and Palm, arguing that this is a "huge market" and there is plenty of room for several successful players.