Why HP might (ultimately) ditch WebOS for Android

WebOS lets HP stand out but also makes it the odd man out, while an Android strategy could better play to HP's strengths

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Dell is also trying to play the Android game with smartphones and tablets, but so far the devices have received little attention -- perhaps because Dell has long suffered a reputation for poor quality, which may have been permanently cemented through recent revelations it intentionally resold defective equipment to customers (Dell denies these claims). Although Dell theoretically could execute the same "treat Androids as Windows PCs" strategy, it may not have the ability or reputation any longer to pull that off. Its Android-based Streak tablets, for example, have been poorly received, including the latest 7-imch version released this month.

HP has both the ability and the reputation. Sure, a "let's do for Android what we do for Windows" strategy may not be as sexy as a "let's try to be a unique platform à la Apple and Google" plan, but it would better play to HP's proven strengths.

The Windows head versus the WebOS heart
Such a strategy, however, may not play to HP's aspirations. The Palm team surely would not accept such a "treat Android like Windows" strategy -- Palm's intent when ex-Apple exec Jon Rubinstein took over several years ago was to be an Apple, not an HP or Dell. (The Palm folks don't even use PCs -- they're a Mac shop.) HP likely saw in Palm a chance to be more of an Apple: an innovative leader, not merely a good packager of other companies' technology. Retreating from that aspiration could be difficult to execute emotionally.

But Palm didn't deliver an Apple-style product with WebOS or the Pre, and that's why it ended up becoming part of HP. Maybe under HP's wing Palm can get a second chance, and HP can become more than a good packager of others' technology. But as WebOS and the new HP products don't break meaningful new ground, it's not clear what HP brings to the table other than buying Palm more time to try to matter in a second try. With the key products in the WebOS strategy not expected until this summer, everyone else -- Apple, the Android community, and RIM -- have plenty of opportunity to make us all forget WebOS even exists, and to put their own differences on display while we continue to wait for HP's WebOS promises.

Regardless, I suspect there's a debate within HP beween the head and the heart, with the head being "let's do with Android what we've done successfully with Windows" and the heart being "let's leverage to become an Apple or Google." If the heart doesn't succeed this time, I suspect the head will prevail. After all, Palm was cheap enough where HP could afford to drop the heart strategy in favor of the head without material impact on the company's finances or investors.

If the head prevails, that would lead HP to join the Android market, perhaps keeping WebOS as an embedded OS that invisibly powers Internet-connected printers and the like. More important, such a shift could remake the Android market, while giving HP a new area of growth to replace the inevitable decline in sales as the post-PC shift takes hold.

This article, "Why HP might ditch WebOS for Android," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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