Mobile
Commentary
7/27/2010
08:42 AM
Ed Hansberry
Ed Hansberry
Commentary
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HP's Grand Plans For WebOS

After HP acquired Palm, which was to gain access to WebOS, the platform that powers the Palm Pre and Pixi phones, there was concern that smartphones would fall by the wayside. Those concerns were laid to rest weeks ago and smartphones are very much in the picture, but they are only a part of the picture. Can HP make WebOS a multi-form factor powerhouse?

After HP acquired Palm, which was to gain access to WebOS, the platform that powers the Palm Pre and Pixi phones, there was concern that smartphones would fall by the wayside. Those concerns were laid to rest weeks ago and smartphones are very much in the picture, but they are only a part of the picture. Can HP make WebOS a multi-form factor powerhouse?Palm InfoCenter has listed a number of form factors that HP intends to put WebOS on. Former Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein, now with HP, spoke at the Fortune Magazine Brainstorm tech conference recently and had this to say:

"We're working a wide variety, as Todd said, smartphones definitely, slates, netbooks, working with the guys in the printer group. webOS [...] will have a unified user interface across all of these, will have a unified developer environment, and it's all based on the foundation that we build in webOS from day one. When we developed webOS, we thought about making this scalable across a variety of mobile devices; that's what we'll be delivering going forward."

This is ambitious to say the least. When it comes to PC manufacturers like Sony, HP, Dell, Toshiba and others, they have been largely at the mercy of Microsoft when it comes to what they can and cannot do with the PCs and laptops they sell since Microsoft controls the OS those machines have: Windows. I've always liked Dell because they do the least in trying to add their branding to the computers they sell. I believe less is more and when you start adding tons of proprietary interfaces, drivers, custom tray apps, utilities, etc. you wind up having more potential for problems. Sony is at the other end of the spectrum with a ton of custom apps and drivers necessary to get their laptops to work after a fresh install. HP falls somewhere in the middle.

Windows isn't going anywhere of course, especially now that Windows 7 is doing a very good job of erasing the memory of the market fiasco that Vista was. The best way to get your name out there then is to have your own platform. Apple is clear evidence for this. HP wants a piece of this action and why start from scratch when someone else has already done the heavy lifting? Palm launched WebOS in the summer of 2009 and it was only moderately successful. It wasn't enough to save the company so Palm put itself up for sale. This was good for HP as the price was relatively cheap. They now own it and plan to do way more with it than Palm ever could with its limited funding.

Slates, or tablets, are all the rage. With the success of the iPad, everyone wants in on it. The question is, will HP be one-tenth as successful as Apple has been? We know WebOS hasn't been nearly that successful on smartphones compared to the iPhone or even Android.

I think netbooks are a non-starter. People usually want a netbook to perform as a cheap laptop, and that means it needs to run their favorite apps which are usually on Windows. When netbooks came out Linux was the dominant OS and Windows seemed to be an afterthought. That was short lived though as the average consumer was confused as to why they couldn't run Office, iTunes or Quicken on their netbook.

As for printers, I am not sure who cares. Perhaps WebOS will make a great UI on a $20,000 printer that does all sorts of cool things, but on your $99 ink jet? Do you really want to load a driver that would include an entire OS just to manage the thing? Again, less is more and I personally won't buy a printer that has a 200MB installation disc unless I can find a sub-10MB "business" driver that just makes the thing work.

WebOS is a very capable smartphone platform, and it is good to hear that 2.0 is coming later this year. I am eager to hear details on it. Slates are a definite maybe, but HP is going to have to really market the thing so it will make a dent in the iPad's market share.

As for everything else, I think it just sounds better at an investor meeting than it does in the real world. The smartphone market is still very young and WebOS is down, but not out. The computer market is very mature and people have expectations. Remember last year the fad of smartbooks that would run light platforms like Android? That is pretty much how a WebOS netbook would be received, which is to say not very well. The whole printer thing just baffles me. People generally do not want to interact with their printer. Their printer is a tool to put what is on the screen on paper. It is no more interesting than an external hard drive, mouse, keyboard or speakers.

My point is, it has been shown over and over again in the computer world that once size doesn't fit all. Windows doesn't scale down well to handheld devices, nor up to mainframe performance. It has a sweet spot, from netbooks up to servers that are very powerful, but still have an upper limit. WebOS, like Android and iOS, also have their sweet spot. Phones up to tablets pretty much show their range.

I'll be very curious to see how this evolves at HP in the next two to three years. My guess is, in 2012, WebOS will be a player in smartphones and there might be a webOS tablet. Netbooks will be a no-show and WebOS powered printers will be as common as Bluetooth printers are today.

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