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HP boss Whitman: 'We have to offer a smartphone'

But let's not be too hasty

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Hewlett Packard may have crashed and burned when it last tried to crack the mobile device market, but it isn't ready to give up yet. According to CEO Meg Whitman, a new smartphone from HP is not a matter of "if", but "when".

Describing HP's bungled acquisition of Palm as "a detour into smartphones," Whitman told Fox Business that the PC maker definitely still has mobile ambitions, but that it's essential to "get it right this time."

"My view is we have to ultimately offer a smartphone, because in many countries of the world, that is your first computing device," Whitman said. "There will be countries in the world where people will never own a tablet or a PC or a desktop. They will do everything on a smartphone."

That will mean large portions of the world's population will have little use for HP products, unless something changes. Unlike such rivals as Apple, Samsung, and Sony, HP has never successfully penetrated the consumer phone biz.

In 2010, HP tried to buy its way into smartphone customers' pockets by snapping up Palm for $1.2bn, but sales of Palm's webOS-powered Pre and Pixi handsets foundered under HP's leadership.

After 16 months of disappointing results, then-CEO Léo Apotheker essentially chose to storm out of the market in a huff. He announced that he was pulling the plug on HP's entire webOS product line just one day after the UK launch of its last smartphone, the Pre 3, leaving retailers little choice but to sell off their remaining inventory of webOS gear at fire-sale prices.

Many assumed that move spelled the end of HP's phone forays once and for all, but somehow HP's webOS division has managed to carry on – despite layoffs – even when no one seemed sure just what it was trying to achieve.

Lately there have been rumblings that HP is planning a return to the tablet market, which seems like a less risky proposition than having another go at phones. But according to Whitman, phone plans are definitely underway, too, although HP isn't planning any sudden moves.

"We're working to make sure that when we do this it will be the right thing for Hewlett-Packard and we will be successful," she said, adding that her mantra for HP's phone team is that it's better to get things right than to enter the market faster than HP should be there.

Whitman did not say whether webOS would be in the picture for any future HP smartphones, but it could be. In August, HP spun off its former webOS division into a new subsidiary called Gram. HP has yet to publicly announce what Gram might be building, but HP's job site is full of webOS-related listings (for a change).

But whatever form a future HP smartphone might take, Whitman said we will definitely see one, eventually.

"We're a computing company," she said. "We have to take advantage of that form factor." ®

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