HP Goes All-In With WebOS

It's putting all of its mobile development into the Palm operating system, even beyond the smartphone and its just announced tablet. Our analysis and video demo size up what HP is up to.

Fritz Nelson, Vice President, Editorial Director InformationWeek Business Technology Network

February 10, 2011

5 Min Read

That HP is putting all of its mobile muscle and a significant portion of the company's R&D budget behind WebOS and its multiple target platforms (according to statements from HP CTO Phil McKinney during a keynote address last year) is a bold move. It could easily have chosen to run its mobile devices on a version of Windows or Android, or possibly both -- its $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm notwithstanding. But the easy path isn't a glorious one, and it risks making HP just one of a growing list of OEMs. I don't blame the company for not wanting to get lost in the shuffle.

But bold moves don't come without risks. WebOS was astonishingly good when Palm first announced it two years ago, when it received this same sort of buzz. Two years later, with one of the world's biggest, most successful companies behind it, and the OS has yet to attract even a modicum of developer support.

Despite Palm's early pledge to make mobile application development as easy as creating a Web experience, I've heard nary a Palm developer back up that claim. I'm sure there are some, but if it were the rule rather than the exception, there would be far more WebOS applications out there. HP CTO McKinney told me that the WebOS PDK, a tool for converting mobile apps into WebOS apps, is extremely simple, that you could take anything from an iOS application to an existing HTML5 application and, presto chango, make it a WebOS app. I've no anecdotes to refute that assertion, but if it were true, why haven't developers converted everything to WebOS?

After HP announced all of its new products, it went onto a dinner event for developers. Hopefully, the company told this crowd just what it will do to make things easier for them. Hopefully, HP told them all that it would pay them to develop WebOS applications, that it would help them through any technical challenges and use those experiences to improve the development tools. After all, HP isn't alone in this challenge; RIM has had to work extremely hard over the past year to improve its own developer relations.

HP knows all of this, of course, and at its big announcement yesterday, it saved the most compelling news for last: WebOS will also run some of its PCs. HP had announced long ago that WebOS would run on printers and possibly other devices. The PC announcement created, instantly, an almost limitless target for developers. In other words, if developing for WebOS phones and tablets wasn't enough of a draw, now your apps would run on the PCs of the world's leading PC maker. That had to send a few shock waves through Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

McKinney, pressed for more details by a small, impromptu group of journalists, indicated that WebOS would run on top of Windows. But he also said there could be dedicated laptops, or clamshell-like devices similar to the ChromeOS notebooks that Google has prototyped and distributed for early testing. If the tablet is, essentially, a well heeled Web terminal with local resources for processing rich media, there's no reason to take the same approach as with larger form factors.

HP might be pleased to know that our own recent research (conducted across an enterprise IT audience; please note that these reports are provided as part of a paid subscription) shows that buyers are already deploying alternative client devices (tablets, netbooks, thin clients), are planning to do so even more, and -- here's the kicker -- prefer HP as their provider of choice.

chart: Alternative Client Computing Overall Vendor Performance

Indeed, watching mobile technology emerge and evolve has become great sport, and so far the tablet competition has been like a hockey game with lots of action, a few skirmishes, and only a little bit of scoring. That's about to change. Apple has been quiet, in typical fashion, ahead of unveiling its second-generation iPad. Apple must be watching all of this action from the stands, partly amused because it has such a big mindshare and marketshare lead, but partly worried about all of the new contenders.

None of these fast followers has announced pricing. HP was no exception. McKinney said that the TouchPad is still too far from shipping (the company is targeting the summer), and he hinted that every manufacturer is waiting to see what everyone else, most especially Apple, will do. One media observer reminded me that HP must also give its resellers some wiggle room, something Apple doesn't have to worry much about since it controls most of its tablet ecosystem.

chart: Future Distribution of Alternative Systems

To win, Microsoft, RIM, and HP must each have a strategy that goes beyond having a great consumer device, a strategy that plays to each of their strengths. RIM is tying the Playbook to the security and management strengths of its BlackBerry Enterprise Server, counting on a loyal, uncompromising base of enterprise customers. HP is banking on its stronghold on corporate personal systems, and maybe a world in which buyers will want every computing device (big and small) to come from one vendor -- not so much out of brand loyalty, but because of what the WebOS integration offers. Heaven knows what Microsoft is banking on.

The good news for all three is that there is still plenty of time, and for HP that it has apparently been using it wisely.

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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About the Author(s)

Fritz Nelson

Vice President, Editorial Director InformationWeek Business Technology Network

Fritz Nelson is a former senior VP and editorial director of the InformationWeek Business Technology Network.

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