Opinion: HP show they are tuned in to tablets

The WebOS platform is a key asset held by Palm.

The WebOS platform is a key asset held by Palm.

Recent manoeuvres by HP has shown it understands the burgeoning tablet market better than Microsoft currently does, says Adam Maguire.

It was with great fanfare that Steve Ballmer took to the stage at CES this year to unveil the HP Slate, or at least that is how he is likely to recount the story. In reality the big reveal of the HP/Microsoft co-operation went down like a lead balloon, clearly suffering from the decision to push the announcement forward in an attempt to under-cut Apple’s suspected tablet plans.

Since then the HP Slate has been quietly killed off. It seems that the hardware company doubted the viability of a Windows 7-based tablet device and decided it could not compete with the far more focused challenge presented by Apple’s iPhone OS.

It was right too. Windows 7 is a fine operating system and has successfully shaken off the ghosts of Vista in a very short space of time. It was also designed with touch in mind but in reality it could never compete with a touch-only interface; nor could it promise quality touch integration with all of the applications that run on it.

Clearly that is where HP’s acquisition of Palm comes into its own. Palm is known predominantly as a hardware company; some would argue a has-been hardware company. However the greatest asset that company has at the moment by a country mile is the WebOS platform it developed for use on the Palm Pre and Pixi, two devices that would have been great were it not for the hardware itself.

What HP will do with the hardware side of Palm is unclear at present. It’s unlikely that they will jettison it – after all they have spent $1.2bn (€912m) on the company and will want to make a good return on that in the months and years ahead. However Palm is by no means a big player in any market and has not been for some time, so it is hard to know if trying to slug it out against Nokia and co. in such a settled market will be worth it in the long run.

Regardless it is almost a certainty that we will see a WebOS-based HP tablet very soon, all it will take is a scaling up of an already impressive operating system.

HP will want to move fast, too. While Apple is by no means in pole position in the phone market its iPhone has been the one to beat since its arrival in 2007 and most importantly has locked down the app industry leaving seasoned companies scratching their figurative heads.

The iPad is already doing the same in the personal computing space and rivals will be rushing to try to stop this from happening, many relying on Google’s Android as the launch pad to do so. Whether Android will translate well to tablet is anyone’s guess for now but there is no reason why it would not, assuming the coders do more than ship their device with a bare-bones edition of the software.

As for Microsoft, well they risk being left way behind in all of this. For a start they are still in the process of launching their latest phone OS, Windows Phone 7, which is their first real answer to the change in the market brought on by Apple three years ago. In that time pretty much every manufacturer has gotten to grips with various other touch-specific operating systems leaving Microsoft with a very hard sell to make.

The fact that it is only making that pitch now suggests that it will be a year or two more before we see their real solution to the tablet issue with the company almost certain to push Windows 7 as the ideal answer until then.

There is, of course, the potential for them to scale up Windows Phone 7 to a tablet OS just like Apple did with its iPhone OS but first impressions suggest its interface would not sit quite so well on a 10″ screen. Perhaps it is reading into things too much but the name of its mobile operating system also suggests it is designed for phones and not for mobile computing in general.

Given that they were working together just four months ago suggests that HP were of the same mindset as Microsoft when it came to tablets until very recently. Maybe the launch of the iPad made them realise just what they needed to do or maybe something else made them change tact. What matters, however, is that they did change tact and did so with impressive speed and certainty.

It could all still go badly wrong for the company; they may have just blown a huge chunk of money on a fool’s errand. The fact that they seem to know at least what they should be aiming for suggests that they have a fighting chance at least, though.

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