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2/10/2011
03:42 PM
Paul McDougall
Paul McDougall
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WebOS Plans Put HP On Collision Course With Microsoft

Hewlett-Packard is taking aim at its longtime partner as it extends its Palm operating system beyond smartphones and tablets to PCs. And yes, you can blame Vista.

Hewlett-Packard rolled out its highly anticipated TouchPad Wednesday, but the company's ambitions extend well beyond the tablet market and into territory long dominated by its partner Microsoft. That's two big trains on one track, heading right towards each other.

The TouchPad will offer most of the features consumers now expect in a tablet. It's got instant-on capability, an XGA capacitive touch screen, built-in accelerometer, front-facing camera, support from big content providers like Amazon and Time, and so on. And like most tablets on the market, the WebOS-based TouchPad doesn't run Windows.

It has to be troubling enough for Microsoft that its biggest hardware partner rejected Windows for its tablet. But HP unveiled more than just a new gadget Wednesday. It subtly revealed a strategy under which it will attempt to create a brand new computing ecosystem of connected devices that will put it squarely into competition with Redmond -- in the home and office.

"Today we're embarking on a new era of WebOS, with the goal of linking a wide family of HP products through the best mobile experience available," said Jon Rubenstein, senior VP and general manager for HP's Palm unit, who clearly doesn't think Windows Phone 7 is the best mobile experience available.

Make no mistake, the "wide family" Rubenstein referred to includes PCs -- first for the consumer market, but HP will undoubtedly extend its Palm franchise to SMBs and beyond. Even now, HP's mobile products come with Quickoffice, a software suite that lets users create, edit, and view Microsoft Office-compatible documents.

And that's just on the client side. Almost buried in the fine print of HP's TouchPad announcement was news about a new communications technology called Synergy. It's meant to provide a backbone across which HP customers can link all their WebOS devices, be they phones, tablets, or PCs.

Here's what HP said about it: "With the HP Synergy feature, you simply have to sign in to your Facebook, Google, Microsoft Excel, LinkedIn, and Yahoo accounts and your contacts, calendar, and e-mail automatically populate your TouchPad."

Get it? It's a personal cloud.

Forrester analyst Frank Gillett thinks HP may be understating its ambitions for Synergy. HP will "expand HP Synergy technology and cloud services aggressively, including to non-WebOS devices," Gillett said in a research note.

"I think HP is thinking deeply about how to integrate information, sync it, host it, and create seamless access to personal and work information across all devices," Gillett said.

Sounds a lot like Microsoft's software-plus-services strategy, which ropes together products like Windows, SharePoint, Lync, Exchange, Office, and Azure to create an integrated online-offline experience. Ultimately, Gillett thinks HP will "put WebOS on business PCs, not just consumer PCs," and tie them together with Synergy and other back-end services.

All of this has to be a bombshell for Microsoft. Based on its share of the PC market, HP accounts for almost 30% of Microsoft's Windows sales in the U.S. Now it's going to compete with Microsoft. Even as HP CTO Phil McKinney told journalists WebOS will run on top of Windows, he also said there could be dedicated laptops and other non-Windows devices.

It's arguable that Microsoft needs HP more than HP needs Microsoft. On the consumer side, it's HP that has the relationships with big box electronics stores and retailers like Best Buy and Wal-Mart. In business, it's HP that has the connections with VARs and distributors.

In automobile industry terms, HP is the car manufacturer and Microsoft is the engine builder. People buy cars, not engines. And HP is going to start making its own engines.

Apple's success with the iPad was the proof point that created the opportunity for HP to bring a non-Windows product to market, and HP's $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm gave it the technology. But the desire? I honestly believe that was sparked by the events leading up to the 2007 launch of Microsoft's most infamous product ever -- Windows Vista.

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