Palm CEO talks webOS, Verizon & tablet licensing

Find yourself talking to Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein, and the furore of speculation, leaks and general rumors are bound to come up. "They've been incessant since I joined the company" Rubinstein told SlashGear today, as we talked to the chief executive about the possibilities of takeovers, webOS devices of tomorrow and how Palm has learnt from the poorly handled Verizon launch. Media-savvy, confident about his company's future and bracingly honest about Palm's shortcomings, the picture Rubinstein paints is one of a plucky little firm with an exciting product roadmap to come.

Unfortunately – and unsurprisingly – Rubinstein wouldn't be drawn on the contents of that roadmap, nor the sort of timescales it covered. Still, he maintains that Palm are looking to "continue to enhance the family" with a small handful of clearly related devices and a "great webOS experience in every product we do." Just as Microsoft have targeted their new Kin platform at the mass-market, Rubinstein sees the Pixi – which he uses as his daily phone – as positioned for entry-level smartphone users, while the Pre Plus occupies the flagship spot. We pushed him on whether the company plans to flesh out the top-end next or somewhere else along the line, but he refused to be drawn; what we can expect, however, is a faster, more responsive delivery of new devices. Rubinstein blamed the lengthy delay before the GSM Pre's launch on the company's relatively small size and limited resources, paired with the difficulty in prepping the first UMTS device running webOS; now that's been done, however, relationships with operators cemented and testing gone through, the company can "move more rapidly in future."

It's not just hardware that Palm recognises it needs to work on; the sales experience is also a point they're keen to address. Rubinstein has previously criticised Verizon's handling of the Pre Plus and Pixi Plus launch, and it's something he reiterated today. Palm ensured there was plenty of Verizon inventory – certainly enough to cover the Chinese New Year shut-down period – and they "would've liked [it] to move quicker." There's anecdotal evidence that the steps both parties took in the aftermath – bringing in Palm employees to better train Verizon salespeople on the nuances of webOS, preloading devices with tutorial videos and tips – have been working, Rubinstein insists, and that the experience has already helped them in launches with other carriers. He agrees that perhaps the core issue is demonstrating webOS' strengths better; it's "a matter of giving people training" on the platform, both those selling it and those considering buying devices based on it.

Part of that is emphasising the potential of the hardware on offer. Rubinstein reckons that the Pre Plus is faster than the iPhone 3GS in terms of raw hardware, and webOS is the only other platform on the market capable of immersive 3D gaming. Now that the App Catalog in Europe finally has paid software support, and together with the recently announced Unreal engine on the platform, Palm are looking to promote the Pre Plus among developers and buyers alike as a gaming device. Part of that is certainly looking at what Apple are doing with Game Center in iPhone OS 4.0, and "watching closely" the movement in iAd too.

Mobile advertising is an "evolving space", Rubinstein agrees, and one Palm is certainly looking into. Still, the focus now is on the push into Europe, with O2, SFR and Vodafone partnerships to offer the Pixi Plus and Pre Plus in various markets. webOS' growing App Catalog is definitely a part of that, and Palm are working with developers not only in the US but Europe to make sure the 1,000+ titles in there are soon joined by others. While he wouldn't comment on the buy-out speculation, Rubinstein did tell us that keeping webOS to itself was "not something we're religious about." Palm is chasing objective scale when it comes to platform market share, and if they were approached by a company, could build a good working relationship and business model, licensing webOS "would make sense."

With the iPad fresh to the market, and talk of a Google-branded rival running Android, we also asked about Rubinstein's opinion on the burgeoning tablet segment. While Palm are focusing on smartphones right now, he did tell us that webOS was designed to be a "mobile device OS" rather than solely a smartphone platform, suited to a broad scale of devices up to tablets and even larger. Describing larger-scale touch computing as "an exciting area," Rubinstein said that Palm were watching the tablet market and that "we – or licensees – could look at entering that in future." Since we reckon webOS' interface – especially its background notifications system – bests those of iPhone OS 4.0 or Android, that's a direction we particularly hope somebody chooses to follow.

Is Palm going to turn around and announce a partnership deal, a buy-out or a licensing arrangement in the next days or weeks? You'd better believe that Jon Rubinstein is far too media-polished to let that slip. Still, he describes Palm's current path as a "transformation story", suggesting that while commentators love to presume that the smartphone market – and Palm's place in it – is settled, in actual fact it's in its infancy. "Everyone wants to go "it's over"," Rubinstein says, "there are all kinds of rumors. But we're at the beginning of the mobile device story."