Let's just go ahead and say it: HP made an incredible mistake when it decided to nix its webOS smartphone business. The decision, announced in August 2011 by then-CEO Leo Apotheker, meant years of work on the part of Palm's employees and billions of dollars spent were all for nothing. HP is currently without a smartphone, and is missing out on one of the fastest-growing segments of the economy.
HP canned Apotheker about a year ago and installed Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, in his place. Some secretly hoped she would reverse Apotheker's decision regarding Palm. She didn't. Instead, she committed to giving webOS away to the open source community.
HP made good on the promise late last month when it released Open webOS 1.0. Developers are free to download the platform and its associated developer tools, dubbed Enyo. The platform has already been ported to non-Palm tablets and smartphones, though not all the features are working. Open webOS 1.0 is a start, and the developer community may do some great things with it.
HP apparently doesn't know what it's going to do with webOS, though.
Earlier this year, Whitman remarked that the company would "have to" offer a smartphone eventually. This week, she backed away from those comments.
"We don't have any plans to introduce a smartphone in 2013, but we've got to start thinking about what is our unique play, how do we capture this element of the personal computing market?" she said when speaking to investors. "I believe that five years from now, if we don't have a smartphone or whatever the next generation of that device is, we'll be locked out of a huge segment of the population in many countries of the world."
People who live in emerging markets don't have the money to buy computers, but they often have the money to buy cell phones and smartphones. For many, a cell phone is the first experience they have with the Internet. RIM, in particular, has done well in emerging markets in recent quarters.
So, it will be at least 2014 until we see a new smartphone from HP. What OS will it run? That's an interesting question. When making remarks about tablets, Whitman commented, "The consumer market, I would argue, is quite well-served by the tablet in the marketplace today from Apple. But every CIO I talk to wants to have a Windows device, backward compatibility, the ability to control those devices from a security perspective."
That seems to imply HP might lean towards Microsoft's Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 platforms for forthcoming tablets and smartphones. That would make sense, given HP's long-standing relationship with Microsoft.
Why, then, is HP advertising for webOS developers? Looking at HP's company job site, there are 53 webOS and Enyo-based jobs looking for developers to fill them. Didn't HP just spend the last year dumping its Palm employees? Now it sort of wants some of them back?
If there's one thing HP has shown a propensity for over the course of the last few years, it is to make dumb decisions, and then reverse them, and then make new dumb decisions. Nowhere is this more evident than with its smartphone business. HP had its hands on something really good, and squandered it in the worst way possible.