HP's WebOS strategy: Don't make me laugh

Hewlett-Packard has too few developers, a me-too mobile OS, and a bozo CEO. Apple and Google have nothing to worry about

We all remember Steve Ballmer's weird, sweat-soaked performance in 2006 when he stomped about a stage chanting, "Developers, developers, developers!" He had a point, of course: Developers are the lifeblood of any platform, and on the mobile front, Hewlett-Packard doesn't have them. That's just one reason why CEO Léo Apotheker -- with his WebOS ploy -- is going to fall flat on his butt.

But there are so many more reasons that this effort will fail. Start with Apotheker himself: His short tenure at the helm of SAP was a failure, as he was unable to get important new initiatives, like BusinessByDesign (small-business SaaS), off the ground and spent $5.6 billion to buy Sybase as the linchpin of a new mobile strategy. And what did the shareholders of SAP get for their money? Bupkis. Nada. Zip.

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Now this uninspired bozo is running Hewlett-Packard, a company deep in resources and talent but woefully short on inspiration and solid leadership. Being late to market is never a good idea, but companies can recover and still compete in a new arena if they have a clear vision and sharp execution. HP has neither.

Platforms are the name of the game in mobile, and the chances of WebOS becoming a real rival to Apple's iOS and Google's Android are slim. As for Apotheker, whose first full quarter as HP CEO was a bust, I wouldn't buy him any extended-play DVDs to enjoy in his corner office.

Too many mobile platforms
Apple had a huge lead in mobile with the runaway success of the iPhone -- but Google got in the game with Android. Sure, there were missteps; the Nexus One was pitiful and the Android platform is still fragmented. Nevertheless, Android is now outselling the iPhone. There are plenty of reasons for that, not all of them due to Google's strategy. Because AT&T's network frustrated so many users when it had the only iPhone in town, smartphone-hungry consumers were open to an alternative.

Still, Google has great brand equity. Hundreds of millions of people around the world use its search engine, Gmail, and Web apps. People expect it to offer good stuff. HP, on the other hand, has a good name in business, but its consumer PCs get worse and worse. It's no accident that our sister publication PC World has rated HP's service and reliability at or near the bottom of the pack for several years in a row. If you've had an HP product disappoint you, how fast will you be to buy a WebOS-powered smartphone or tablet -- or PC?

Apple's iOS platform is essentially closed, while Google's Android is open. I've argued that in this case, closed is probably better, but both companies are attracting legions of developers. Apple's app store has many more wares than Google's, but there are still thousands of Android apps to tempt consumers. Ultimately, apps are critical; consumers and business users want their smartphones and tablets to do something, and that something requires an app.

I'm not sure why developers would spend their limit resources on the shaky WebOS platform, which hasn't progressed much in two years, and as my colleague Galen Gruman noted, is a weak copy of iOS without the benefit of iTunes as a central console. Developers, by the way, have not embraced that other shaky HP venture -- touchscreen PCs -- and most of those who have are writing for kiosks, not smartphones or PCs.

Nokia, meanwhile, offers an object lesson in failed platforms. It was laughable to hear new CEO Stephen Elop tell employees that it was time to abandon its "burning [Symbian] platform," only to jump into the abyss of Windows Phone 7. Windows Phone 7 hasn't worked for Microsoft, despite that company's huge ecosystem, because it's a deeply flawed mobile OS. It won't work for Nokia for the same reason.

Even so, Windows Phone 7 will attract some developers because it's Microsoft. So will RIM, because the BlackBerry is ubiquitous, and that brings us to a total of five mobile platforms competing for market share and the loyalty of a limited number of top-flight developers.

That's too many platforms. The mobile space is turning into a brutal game of musical chairs, and it won't be long before HP's chair disappears and Apotheker -- my Bozo of the Month -- falls on his butt.

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This article, "HP's WebOS strategy: Don't make me laugh," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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