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HP rocks Redmond with webOS PC play

Wintel giant makes like Apple

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When the world's largest computer maker announced that it plans to equip laptops and desktops with its own operating system, you can be sure that the squeals emanating from Redmond's corner offices were not squeals of delight. And we're guessing the denizens of Cupertino's executive suites pricked up their ears as well.

On Wednesday morning, at a press event unveiling its new webOS-based TouchPad and a pair of webOS phones, HP said that it would bring its Palm-acquired operating system "to the HP devices with the broadest reach," meaning PCs. And Just to make sure that no one missed the implications of that blockbuster, Todd Bradley, executive vice president of HP's personal systems group, stood in front of a slide that included images of laptop and desktop PCs with "HP webOS" emblazoned on their displays.

Bradley provided no details about HP's webOS-on-computers plans, such as what levels of devices are planned, but he did say that webOS PCs would appear "later this year."

If you flash back to just a decade ago, Windows was the undisputed ruler of the personal computer operating systems, with Apple's Mac OS X hanging on to only a tiny slice, and Linux the province of only the geekerati. But we're now poised on a new world order. By the end of the year, we should see those webOS for PCs, Apple's iOS/Mac OS X mashup Lion, and the first machines with Google's web-centric Chrome OS.

The operating-system wars are back – with a vengeance.

This time around, Lion and webOS – and, to a lesser extent, Chrome OS – have one distinct advantage over Windows: integration of mobile and desktop operating-system look, feel, and function.

We know nothing of Lion other than what Steve Jobs has told us – and he's told us precious little. He did say, however, that Lion would be a marriage of Mac OS X and iOS, with its user interface relying on a keyboard and an input device such as a multi-touch mouse or trackpad, rather than a multi-touch display à la iOS.

We know even less about HP's plans for desktop and laptop webOS – but it's dollars to donuts that the similarities between webOS in your pocket and webOS on your desk will be far greater than the similarities between Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7 – similarities that don't exist in any meaningful way.

Lion/iOS and webOS have another advantage over Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7: unified code bases. Apple's two converging operating systems are joined at the hip, both built around the Unix-based Mac OS X. HP's webOS, although it will surely sprout different features for each platform, remains, at its core, the same open source webOS. All else being equal, one core code base – proprietary or open – is better than two.

Not that Windows will swiftly wither and die when faced with increasingly robust competition. Its massive installed base of both PCs and x86 apps provides powerful momentum. In addition, Microsoft has a staggeringly large enterprise presence. We don't see webOS servers in our crystal ball, and no doubt, HP will continue to offer Windows PCs as well as webOS models – at least for the time being.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has promised that Windows 8 will be ported to ARM processors – the mobile-device chip of choice. But recent rumors put Windows 8's retail availabilty as not being until January 2013. A lot can happen in two years – such as further erosion of Windows' market share thanks to both the mobile-device revolution and the combined share-eating attacks by Apple's iOS and Lion, HP's webOS, and Google's Android and Chrome OS.

It's also to be expected that as Microsoft feels more competition, execs in such places as Dell's Round Rock, Texas, headquarters and Acer's New Taipei City, Taiwan, command center may very well find themselves in better negotiating positions when dealing with Redmond.

But although the mood can't be all that perky among Ballmer & Co's brain trust this week, they are surely comforted by Microsoft's $41bn pile of cash, cash equivalents, and short-term investments, and its market capitalization of around $235bn. The operating system wars may reigniting, but Redmond's arsenal is a formidable one.

Still, the surprise appearance of a new desktop and laptop operating system from such a high-profile company as HP can't be good news to Microsoft. The squeals, we're guessing, were very loud indeed. ®

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