Capping off a long stretch of misery and broken promises to devotees of its failed operating system, HP finally did right by webOS fans last week when it delivered Open webOS, the open-source version of the Palm-developed platform, just before its end-of-September deadline. Of course, it’s not a mobile-friendly build that users can install on the TouchPads or Pre3s they might still have lying around; instead, it’s a raw OS much in need of refinement before it can be made to work on a tablet or a smartphone. All that aside, it has in fact been delivered.
That on-time delivery marks one of the only promises that HP has kept to the webOS community during its tenure with the platform, but more significantly, it may also be the company’s last such promise to webOS fans. The release of Open webOS 1.0 marks the culmination of HP’s last concerted effort involving the platform, and with most of the team they bought from Palm two years ago having left for greener pastures, it’s unlikely in the extreme that the company will do anything serious with what was once perhaps the most innovative, potential-laden operating system in the mobile space. No matter what lip-service HP pays to notions of using it in future products.
That leaves the company, still trying to right itself following a doomed affair with a CEO who wanted to turn it into the next IBM, with an uncertain path in the mobile space going forward. Following the termination of its webOS efforts, the company scrambled to get back into the good graces of Microsoft, the partner it seemed in danger of alienating with its talk of building its own ecosystem. Fortunately for HP, there still seems to be a spark between the two companies, and we’ve seen early signs of hope spawn from the tentative reunification.
HP was one of the first companies to succinctly express the impact that the iPad and similar products were having on its computer sales when, in an earnings call shortly before the TouchPad debacle, then-CEO Leo Apotheker declared that “the tablet effect is real.” HP and other computer manufacturers have been losing market share to tablets for some time; it was an early detection of that storm on the horizon that prompted HP to buy Palm, as former CEO Mark Hurd tacitly admitted when he mentioned in an interview that his company didn’t buy Palm “to get into the smartphone business [emphasis ours].” HP has been thinking tablets for a while.
We had a chance to get some first-hand experience with one of the early fruits of the revitalized HP-Microsoft relationship at IFA in Berlin, where some very helpful HP folks were kind enough to give us some hands-on time with the Envy X2:
I was thoroughly impressed by the Envy x2, so much so that I wrote a lengthy editorial on why I thought it might be a huge part of HP’s salvation. There, I said:
What I’ve taken away from my brief encounter with the Envy x2 is a sense of hope for HP. If it’s priced right, and if Windows 8 as a whole takes off, the device stands a solid chance of serving as the gateway to the tablet market the company has been so desperate to break into. If the stars really align, it might even propel HP into favored, premium-partner status with Microsoft’s tablet division, territory that other OEMs like Samsung seem to be aggressively pursuing. And if HP manages to avoid bungling those successes, the Envy x2 and its follow-on products might be among the few products to survive the hardware-partner-decimation some expect the Surface to cause.
Considering how close HP seems to a hit with the Envy x2 (and presumably with similar Windows 8-based products in the pipeline), one would think the company would look to extend its efforts with Microsoft to its smartphone efforts, as well. Sure, it’s not always wise to put all your eggs in one basket -Nokia is still struggling to make its exclusive alliance with Microsoft pay off, for example- but HP’s corporate personality since it acquired Palm has been laser-focused on an all-in, “doubling-down” mentality. The company bought webOS, the official position went at the time, so it could use it on everything, from tablets to smartphones to desktops to printers. You’d think that, given the beautiful products it’s capable of building for Windows 8 even at this early stage, that HP would be eager to port that expertise to smartphones.
But the company doesn’t seem so sure. In a recent interview with Fox Business News, HP CEO Meg Whitman was tight-lipped about the company’s smartphone strategy, only going so far as to say that it fully intends to re-enter the market. She gave no hint as to what platform such a device family might run on, but some leaked benchmark scores have since pointed to the existence of a mysterious smartphone-sized device called the “HP Bender,” running Android 4.0.4.
Um … what?
We haven’t seen anything further on that mystery device, and it’s my sincere hope we never do. HP going with Android for its leading smartphone platform would be the most senseless move since ditching webOS. Unless it decided to fork Android or whip up its own UI skin, the company would have to differentiate on hardware exclusively. It has no Android tablet offering, so there’s no interoperability opportunity there. And going the Android route isn’t the short road to instant profits, as almost any manufacturer whose name isn’t Samsung can tell you. The “me too” approach won’t work in this case, even for a company with as long and vaunted a history as HP.
Instead, a unified approach is the way to go. It’s what HP was trying to do with webOS, and it could work even better with a modern platform, something built with mobile and desktop uses in mind. Something like Windows.
In fact, HP did this with earlier iterations of Microsoft’s OS, shipping desktop PCs, tablet PCs, and PocketPCs alongside one another in the first half of the last decade. The problem was timing; smartphones were a niche product, tablets even more so, and neither were very “good” in a broad sense. The only thing that sold really well was the desktop line, which helped propel HP to its current market position– eroded though it may be.
Today’s market is sharply inverted. Tablets are the new computing hotness, replacing notebooks at an increasing rate, and smartphones are still selling at an impressive clip. HP has already (re)adopted Windows as its principal operating system on tablets; letting that focus trickle down to its new smartphone offerings is the next logical step. The visual similarities between Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 would provide a striking brand unity, and the interoperability between those platforms, when pushed by a company with HP’s scale, could stand a chance of creating a powerful ecosystem. “Ecosystem” might be last year’s buzzword, but it’s still a crucial ingredient in the recipe for success in the mobile market. Such a unified offering will be necessary to push the Windows platform forward as a viable option spanning smartphones and tablets. With its long history of backing Microsoft, and its demonstrated excellence in hardware, HP is just the company to help push that dream into reality.
The only question is how long it will take the company to realize that Windows Phone 8 is the only “right” option in Meg Whitman’s “better right than faster” mantra.
Envy x2 pic via Pocket-Lint
HP Bender story source: Android Central