It may be that HP intends to have a WebOS tablet and smartphone to keep the WebOS name in the public, as a way to help market WebOS peripherals. But people don't buy printers and the like based on their underlying OS, so that seems a dubious strategy.
What HP really needs is a path away from Windows. HP's much-ballyhooed Windows 7-based Slate 500 turned out to be, charitably, a demonstration project. I personally believe it was a sop to the Microsoft relationship, a fake product that could be buried quickly (after all, HP planned to manufacture just 5,000 of them) but make its key software partner feel better and maybe help grease some wheels elsewhere in the relationship.
When it comes to where it makes its money, HP is really an ink company that sells also printers, PCs, and professional services to encourage the consumption of its ink. It has become the top PC seller in recent years, mainly because it didn't let its PC quality go south as Dell did (and HP wisely used the Compaq brand on its crappiest devices, insulating its reputation).
But HP doesn't want to be an ink company, thus its recent attempts at innovation, such as pioneering touchscreen PCs a couple years ago. Unfortunately, it made two mistakes in that effort: IT made the vertical LCD screen the touch control surface (that vertical orientation is very uncomfortable outside of kiosk uses), and it relied on an OS -- Windows 7 -- whose touch support is both poor and incomplete. Worse, Microsoft essentially abandoned the Windows touch UI, letting it languish just as touch became popular on the iPhone, then the iPad, and now all mobile devices. Microsoft still is doing nothing serious with touch for today's Windows.
If you're HP and you want to be more than an ink company, but your primary PC OS partner seems rudderless just as the world seems to be shifting away fom PCs, what do you do? Maybe you buy a mobile platform like WebOS and strike out by yourself to invent your own post-PC future. That strategy would make sense -- and HP should certainly know by now Microsoft isn't participating in that future outside of its Office 365 cloud services -- except for a tiny problem: Apple and Google are already there. The iPad is the model of the post-PC PC, and Google is quickly copying that example, while also betting on a parallel path with the Chrome OS laptops due this summer. At the same time, it's relying on hardware partners such as Motorola Mobility to experiment as well, such as with the fascinating, dockable Motorola Atrix 4G.
Where does all that leave HP? I honestly don't know. Taking WebOS and remaking it into a sort of intelligent device OS for Internet-connected peripherals would be a natural extension of HP's moneymaking ink business today. Additionally, it's an area where there's very little competition, if any. There's also the opportunity to take on Microsoft and Motorola Solutions in the static logistics and field-force market.
Using WebOS to build a post-PC platform makes sense. Although Apple and Google are already strong in that shift, it's such early days that there's still a chance for a new kid to lead. After all, it took Google a few years to become a meaningful competitor in the mobile market after Apple reinvented it. Who's to say HP can't pull off the same trick? Granted, it would require a much more nimble, inventive HP than we've seen for years.
If HP's hope is to leverage WebOS for its post-PC transition, it needs to stake that ground soon, while there is still ground to be claimed. That means something a hell of a lot more compelling than the WebOS 2.0 it showed in October. We may get a clue on Feb. 9 when HP reveals its WebOS strategy.
This article, "WebOS and BlackBerry are running out of time: What can they do?," 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. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.