HP made a large purchase last year — they bought Palm. And with that came Palm’s brand spanking new smartphone operating system, WebOS. Despite a rocky start thanks to under-powered hardware and battery-sucking early builds, WebOS has actually gotten decent reviews. Everyone who uses it seems to say that it’s a really solid operating system. And they say it with a glimmer of sadness, since it seems like nothing could unseat Apple as the king of Smartphone Mountain, nor Android as the rogue gathering an army and preparing to lay siege against the incumbent king.
And yet, HP might just have a fighting chance. Recently, they released the TouchPad, a tablet which in many ways rivals the iPad or the current favorite Android tablet, the Galaxy Tab 10.1. Critics will say that the TouchPad is crippled by lack of software, but they’re missing the point. Everyone has different needs from a smartphone, but remember when the iPhone didn’t have apps at all? It survived in part because, as 37 signals put it, “Ten Apps Is All I Need“. Do those basic apps well, and most people don’t need much more. Pretty much every app that you want to use is made to work with Mobile Safari, and should work fine with WebOS’ browser, which also runs on WebKit.
Did I mention it already has a customized Facebook app/web layout, something which even the iPad doesn’t have? Or that it has its own Skype client? Because it already has both of those. And that’s why HP is going to take the scepter of “business tablet” away from RIM and their PlayBook. HP has deep pockets to promote this thing, and they’ve already started advertising on TV. It’s currently priced the same as the iPad, and while it may not be flying off the shelves, we can expect HP will drop the price around the holiday season and advertise around then too.
And now, HP says they’re interested in licensing WebOS to some other smartphone manufacturers. In case you missed Android’s meteoric rise to relevance, that played a big part in Google’s strategy. WebOS also allows better connectivity between devices by the nature of how it’s built. And HP also makes computers, something that Google is only barely getting into right now, in it’s own, very Google-ish way. What if HP were to make computers that integrate WebOS and allow easy passing of data between desktop, tablet, and phone? That could be a game-changer, something that would have Apple scrambling to replicate. It could make sending a website to your phone as easy as … not having to do anything at all. In short, it could be everything we currently want from phone-tablet-PC interactions that we don’t already have. And HP has all the tech it needs to do it now, thanks to Palm.
RIM, the makers of BlackBerry, are already hurting, and pretty much ready to sell out. Their earnings year over year continue to decline. They’re beyond the point of repair, since the PlayBook was their shot at the tablet market, and it’s been (to put it bluntly) a failure. No email client, no app ecosystem (even WebOS has SOME apps already), and despite its dual cameras, no Skype. HP has already smelled blood in the water, and is going for the business market since they can’t take down the iPad. But the PlayBook? That should be child’s play for someone as entrenched as HP. Add to the picture that now third parties can make WebOS phones, and HP’s position will be further strengthened, and the TouchPad won’t seem so much like an obscure thing.
To be clear, it’s unlikely we’ll see any major shifts by the end of the year. Apple will continue to wear the crown, and is already planning to launch an updated iPad around the holiday season. Android is still struggling in the tablet arena, but RIM has already tripped and fallen into the moat. And HP is looking on from the distance, and if they make some calculated moves, it’s certainly possible that they could pick up some marketshare this year. If they convince a couple larger companies to buy TouchPads, and make the killer apps that they need, it could change everything. The tablet wars may have just started to heat up, and it’s certainly going to be an interesting holiday season. May the best man win!
Update: Or, you know, maybe not.