In a baffling move, HP spent $1.2 billion on Palm, the twice-revived also-ran in the race for mobile supremacy. The company must now execute flawlessly and with old-school HP innovation to succeed. Here’s what it must do.
When Palm first launched the Pre and WebOS at CES in 2009 it was fresh and exciting, from the Web-centric app model, to the gesture-based interface and card metaphor, to the exquisite hardware that just felt natural in hand. Many others have since matched and exceeded those achievements, to the point that Palm isn't even in the race for mobile supremacy. Having the backing and war chest of HP could help, but it might be too late. It’s not that it’s baffling that HP wants to be a player in the mobile market; it's just confusing that it bought Palm instead of, say, Research In Motion. And it isn't difficult to root for Palm to come back stronger, but it also isn't difficult to imagine Palm in the HP graveyard alongside the artifacts of DEC and Compaq.
If HP has any hope of turning Palm into the comeback story of this young century, or simply making HP a dominant force in mobile computing, it needs to execute on the following seven steps:
1) Update WebOS. The Palm platform was a fantastic series of innovations, with Palm Synergy at the heart of it all. The integration of your data across apps was brilliant, syncing your social networks was new, a card metaphor for your data was simple and elegant, multitasking was there from day one. The list goes on, but now the integration needs to be even tighter. WebOS needs improved social network integration, a universal inbox, and beyond those notable "table stakes" features, it must also find a way to go a few steps further.
On the other end of the spectrum, HP has talked about taking WebOS beyond the phone. If it stays true to that vision, we'll see WebOS for printers and netbooks and other tablet-like devices. More to the point, HP could use WebOS as a lightweight, Web-based OS -- something that, if done right, could put the scare into Microsoft and Apple. Perhaps that's a stretch today, but with Google and HP pushing a rich Web-based front end to an application cloud, we could see the beginning of an era.
2) Update the hardware. The small, fabulous Pre is a great design, but the keyboard has to be more usable and sturdy. I wouldn't change much more. HP needs to add bigger form factors into the mix, however, for better information consumption. With bigger screens dominating the market, HP has to have a play here too.
3) Hedge your bets. HP has publicly said that it will "double down" on WebOS. Good. HP spent $1.2 billion on Palm, and it had better go for broke trying to succeed. But it must also hedge its bets, developing hardware (tablets and phones) that runs Android and Windows Phone 7. Choice is good, and HP has the resources to take this approach. Today, if I buy a computer, I can run any version of Linux, several versions of Windows, or multiple OSes in virtual machines. They also work on anybody's network, natively. It's time for someone to usher in that same level of choice and flexibility in mobile. HP, this could be your battleground. In fact, maybe it has to be. HP has never really had success with end user operating systems, but it has had lots of it supporting others'.
4) Go enterprise. Look, Apple and Android have the consumer market locked up, and while it would be fun to see something stunning enter the mix, that will require a tremendous marketing effort, even if the product execution sings like a whippoorwill. Don't forget, Microsoft and its hardware partners are also going to go hard at the consumer market, and RIM is slathering billboards and walls and baseball stadiums in its attempts to sway consumers. Enterprise buyers want security and control; only RIM truly offers that now. If an enterprise is buying laptops and servers and systems management from HP, it stands to reason it would consider buying HP phones as well.
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