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HP launches webOS products, but no ecosystem

Palmy TouchPad cometh

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Comment Hewlett-Packard has unveiled its first major webOS products since it acquired the mobile software platform with Palm last year. It has launched a 9.7-inch tablet, the TouchPad, and two smartphones.

The TouchPad is initially a Wi-Fi only device but a cellular version will follow, HP promised, which may attract more carrier attention. Apart from lack of a 3G connection, the product is positioned in the iPad’s space, though it is not yet clear how far webOS will differentiate it from the tablet crowd.

The platform is heavily geared to modern open development techniques and to browser/cloud models, and HP did announce further enhancements for that approach, outlining release 2.1. But the features touted for the tablet were somewhat similar to those of the iPad and its Android rivals.

The TouchPad has a display with resolution of 1024 x 768, is 13mm thick and comes with front facing camera for video chat, a choice of 16Gbytes or 32Gbytes of built-in memory, support for Flash, and a 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor. The Qualcomm processor is powerful, but most tablets will be dual-core this year, and the rest of the list does not sound sufficient to put webOS on the map, considering the ground it needs to make up on better established platforms.

As well as the tablet, HP announced two new smartphones, the third generation of the Pre handset, and the compact Veer. The Pre 3 doubles the display resolution of the previous model, adds HD video recording and a front-facing camera. It runs on a 1.4GHz Snapdragon and comes in HSPA+ or CDMA EV-DO versions (but not a worldphone), and with a choice of 8Gbytes or 16Gbytes of memory. The phone will ship this summer.

The Veer was positioned as a neat alternative to the increasingly bulky “jumbo phones”, compressing most of the capabilities of the Pre into a smaller package. It has the same slider keyboard and runs HSPA+ with 802.11b/g and Bluetooth 2.1. The Snapdragon is far slower, at 800MHz, and there are 8Gbytes of storage. Both Veer and the Pre family can function as personal hotspots so a 3G connection can be shared between several Wi-Fi devices.

The update to webOS claims no fewer than 50 new features, including voice dialing and improved multitasking, and it will be included in all three new products, and will also be available as a software update for Pre 2 users.

Its highest profile new feature is the addition of interconnectivity between webOS devices to enable information, notifications and browser history to be shared between tablets and handsets. This is where HP could score serious points – not with devices that look like also-rans, but by pushing a common, web-oriented software platform through the whole chain of devices from PCs to phones, supporting multiscreen content and cloud services. And of course, this could link back to where HP really belongs, fighting it out with Cisco and Microsoft for the cloud platforms themselves.

On their own, the tablet and phones may be attractive but they will make as few inroads into Android as the original Palm Pre (and that had the weight of a brand that, even two years ago, still had some magic, and a far more impactful, even Apple-style launch and marketing). They have no developer ecosystem and it is unlikely HP will be able to build one, outside a few enterprise niches, in a world where Android, iOS and others fight for developer attention. The firm did announce the requisite apps support for TouchPad, such as Kindle and Skype, but these are must-haves, not differentiators.

To justify its investment in webOS, HP needs to make it a platform that spans all its devices, but also one that can live with more established OSs. Like RIM, it will broaden the appeal of a niche OS by focusing on open web tools, to facilitate multiscreen sharing of apps and to boost the ecosystem rapidly. It could take the approach, also linked to RIM as well as MeeGo, of promoting Java to a more prominent position in a multiplatform strategy, perhaps even harnessing the Dalvik virtual machine.

Or more strategically, it could make webOS a layer on top of other OSs – a modern, browser-oriented approach also seen in Chrome OS. SVP Todd Bradley hinted at this when he said HP would put webOS on its PCs and many other devices, such as printers – but this is far more likely as an overlay for Windows or Linux than as an either/or choice. That would at least get the attention of developers, and follow through on HP’s recent moves to lead the way in converging PC, tablet and netbook formats.

Copyright © 2011, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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