HP's expected launch this week of a new tablet, and possibly more, is a pivotal moment for the company. A smashing success could invigorate a company that has become more ambitious about execution than innovation. After all, winning in mobile is the sort of thing that can define a company these days. And HP is in need of some defining.
Expect more than a tablet from HP this week, but also expect more from a tablet. Well publicized leaks have given us little to go on here--there's speculation of a variety of screen sizes and new form factors, including Broadway and Manta on the smartphone side, as well as a Palm tablet called Topaz. Signs point to HP having units on display on Wednesday, and again at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona the following week.
And yet don't expect the tablet hardware to be much different from every other tablet unveiled so far: dual-core GHz processors, two cameras (one capturing video at 720 p), mini-USB, HDMI out, and so on. Like the Motorola XOOM and RIM's Playbook, HP’s tablet could feature a completely gesture-full UI (that is, no hardware buttons). The company could unveil multiple tablet form factors.
Expect an updated WebOS. Palm was an early proponent of Web-based development for the mobile platform. Unfortunately, while it sounded nice, developers really didn't have an easy experience with it. Perhaps we'll see developer kits that truly make Web applications central to the Palm mobile experience. WebOS app growth has been anemic, so opening the platform to a wider group of developers -- many of whom are still waiting to see if WIndows Phone 7 takes off -- could be the only way to make this platform attractive.
Further, Palm has talked about WebOS beyond the mobile phone and the tablet and into things like printers and other peripherals. Perhaps we'll see a more distributed architecture, where parts of WebOS will run on mobile devices, other parts on tablets, and still others on devices like cameras and printers. More important, perhaps we'll see why that really matters, because for the life of me, I can't imagine why it would.
If none of these expectations is met, or exceeded--if HP doesn't both zig and zag--HP will remain in our minds as the company that plods along, doing everything exceedingly well but nothing phenomenal or spectacular or surprising. Nothing that makes it a household name. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that . . . until others start flying by.
Each of HP's big competitors has articulated a bold vision. Visionary leadership hasn't been HP’s strong suit. Capable managers, strong engineers, and a large war chest have carried the day. The best thing that can be said about HP CEO Leo Apotheker so far is that at least we know now where he is (for his first weeks on the job, he went underground to avoid being served a subpoena during SAP's trial with Oracle).
HP paid $1.2 billion for Palm. To a $125 billion company, that's like a fart on a pig farm. In fact, the company had about $15 billion in cash at the time of its Q3 earnings report (it had also paid out a dividend and bought back a hefty amount of stock). But you never want to lose on a substantial bet like this. After visible, failed acquisitions like DEC and Compaq, a retreat on WebOS just isn't an option.
It's not like a me-too offering will be the end of HP. We're only at the beginning of the mobile device race. There is time for companies like HP to win, lose, and win again. It's probably no fun starting out as an also-ran, but right now everyone but Apple and Google are thus. Still, that also-ran status must be unsettling to a company like HP that is dominant in most of the markets it enters -- servers, storage, printers -- and very competitive in others, like networking and systems and performance management.
I'm expecting something big from HP. After all, the last time Palm made a big deal about a new mobile platform (WebOS) was two years ago, and it was surprisingly innovative. Anything less would be a big setback, one that would be difficult for HP to recover from.
(Ed. Note: Late last year I wrote a 7-step mobile plan for HP, which you can find here.)
Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.
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