HP's iPad Competitor Faces Tough Odds
The TouchPad runs the latest version of Palm webOS, and seems to check off all the must-have features, but can HP's device compete with Apple's tablet?
On the surface, the TouchPad appears to offer all that its peers do: 10-inch display, dual-core processors, slick multitasking, generous storage, video chatting, and, of course, wireless networking galore.
The TouchPad is surprisingly iPad-like. It has an identical 9.7-inch display with 1024 x 768-pixel resolution. It weighs about the same, and at 1.6 pounds is just a smidge above the iPad's 1.5 pounds. The dimensions and bezel are also similar. (Insert snarky "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" comment here.) Clearly, Apple's first effort at a tablet was the inspiration for the TouchPad.
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The 1.3 megapixel camera can be used for video chats -- which HP demoed at the event -- and the on-board photo application looks extremely slick with its native social networking support. The TouchPad is powered by Qualcomm's APQ8060 SnapDragon processor, which has dual cores at 1.2GHz. Connectivity options include microUSB, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, and GPS. No HMDI and no DLNA, however, which means TouchPad users aren't going to be to share media with other devices easily.
The latest version of webOS is on the TouchPad, and it has been optimized for the tablet form factor. Features that translate well on the tablet-sized screen include multitasking, webOS's cards and stacks features, and the new email application. They all look and (appear to) function well. The browser supports Flash for embedded video, and HP says that the TouchPad will be great for watching movies, reading books, or browsing YouTube. My favorite feature of the TouchPad is the resizable software QWERTY keyboard, which lets users adjust it to fit their typing style.
HP was sure to talk up business features, too. It comes with QuickOffice for Microsoft Office compatibility, and offers IT favorites, such as support for VPNs and encryption. Let's not forget to mention that the TouchPad will have built-in support for HP printers, which HP says are so numerous as to be available pretty much anywhere one might travel.
Last, HP has done a few innovative things, such as allow all webOS devices to easily and seamlessly speak to one another and transfer content. Based on its Touchstone technology, webOS devices -- such as the TouchPad and Pre 3 -- can sync and share things such as Web pages, media, documents, and so on. It's a nice touch (pun intended) when it comes to keeping things in the family.
Based on the simple specs, and initial impressions of the device, it looks capable and offers a user experience that works well on a tablet-sized piece of hardware. Looking at the bigger picture, the TouchPad's chances in the market are far from solid, though. The iPad is a juggernaut in the tablet space, and (based on reports) the iPad 2 is already in production. Sources promise that it will be lighter, faster, and more capable than the original. The iPad 2, Motorola's Xoom, and RIM's PlayBook will all hit the market before the TouchPad, some of them with 4G on board. Which of these devices wins the shoot-out in terms of sales during the second and third quarters of the year will probably be determined not by the devices themselves, but by how successfully the hardware can be integrated with PCs and third-party systems.
We already know iPad's success with integration. Apple's iTunes (whether or not you like it) is the one-stop-shop for applications, music, movies, television shows, podcasts, and books. It is already compatible with network operators around the globe, and accessory makers love anything made by Apple.
The Motorola Xoom -- and Android tablets in general -- are less battle-tested, but the pieces are mostly in place. The user experience is (mostly) there, the app store is (mostly) there, and carriers appear to be willing to support Android tablets. They also include features that business users will need, though Android falls a bit short when it comes to support for music and movie downloads.
RIM's PlayBook is on deck. Despite some obvious weaknesses (ahem, no native email), RIM's success in the corporate world is well documented, but that doesn't mean its brand-new operating system, based on QNX, is going to gel with businesses or consumers. Unlike the iPad, Xoom, and TouchPad, the PlayBook's display measures 7 inches, not 10. We know that the carriers are on board, and Sprint is planning a WiMax version of the PlayBook.
But what about developers? HP mentioned that it has made its developer tools as simple as possible to use, and continues to receive interest from the developer community. The numbers in the Palm App Catalog -- which are fractions of other app stores -- tell an entirely different story. The developer interest in webOS, and the TouchPad in particular, is quite muddy. Sure, HP trotted out Time Magazine, which showed off a TouchPad application, but a device such as the TouchPad needs a lot more than just a single publication's support.
One thing the TouchPad can rely on is HP's relationship with the business world in general, and its scale when it comes to manufacturing and distribution. HP's brand is also known worldwide. HP has done well with a 1.0 tablet device in the TouchPad, but it will have to do better -- and quickly -- if it wants to fend off the iPad, Xoom, PlayBook, and untold hordes of Android tablets on the horizon.
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