HP TouchPad and Pre: New products, but not new ideas

HP lays out its strategy to compete with iPhone, iPad, and Android -- a risky effort based on a largely unchanged WebOS

Hewlett-Packard, with several versions of the Pre smartphone and the new TouchPad tablet, is directly targeting Apple with a suite of "connected" devices meant to provide the same range as Apple's iPad and iPhone. The TouchPad, which is expected to ship this summer, is similar to the iPad in size, weight, and hardware capabilities.

What sets the TouchPad apart, says Jon Rubenstein, general manager of Hewlett-Packard's Palm unit, is WebOS. Additionally, its "Touchstone" ability lets you sync conductively (when cases touch) to some Pre smartphones: You lay the Pre on the TouchPad; the Pre essentially tethers and autosyncs its current screen and its data to the TouchPad. Research in Motion plans to do something similar via Bluetooth with the PlayBook and BlackBerry, but the WebOS method is much slicker.

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WebOS 2.1 adds Adobe Flash, voice dialing, and and adjustable on-screen keyboard but otherwise looks and acts very much like the previous versions. It continues to lack enterprise-class Exchange security and management capabilities, though on-device encryption is finally being added. One differentiating feature is that the tablet's on-screen keyboard includes a row of numeral keys. Another is built-in support for wireless printers from HP -- and only HP. As part of HP's Synergy capability, entering your WebOS account name and password automatically syncs the data from your other WebOS devices, such as contacts and calendars.

In addition to the previously announced Pre 2 that becomes available for pre-order on Verizon Wireless tomorrow, HP introduced a smaller device called the Veer, expected to ship this spring. Also debuting was the Pre 3, a larger device with a 3.6-inch display with a resolution twice that of the original Pre and a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor that runs at 1.4GHz. It is expected to ship this summer and supports the Touchstone technology for conductive tablet syncing.

Except for the multiple smartphone sizes, HP's WebOS strategy is very much a clone of Apple's, without the benefit of iTunes as your central console. If you standardize on HP hardware, you get data and account integration.

WebOS is a decent operating system, but it's been surpassed in many respects by Apple's iOS and Google's Android. WebOS's cards UI is a nice way to navigate among apps and services -- part of WebOS's native multitasking. On the TouchPad, there are some nice interface touches such as in how you can check email when reading a specific message. Still, I was struck how little WebOS has changed -- I'd seen and heard about the basic capabilities two years ago when WebOS first came out. Likewise, its support of Kindle, Quickoffice, and video calling are me-too apps and capabilities unworthy of the attention HP is giving them.

HP seems to have decided that the original WebOS failed because it didn't have HP behind it, but now with HP's support, it will rise in the market. That's a risky bet, given the WebOS's largely subtle differences from Android and iOS. Before Android came on the scene, the strategy would have been more likely to succeed -- although it didn't when Palm tried. Will the market accept a third iOS-like mobile OS now that HP is pushing it? Maybe -- but HP should take note of Nokia grasping at a mobile strategy while Symbian and MeeGo implode and Microsoft flailing with Windows Phone 7 and its long-term lack of tablet OS. RIM continues to struggle against the rising iOS and Android juggernauts, and it's much more etablished. HP could easily end up one more wannabe in that crowd.

Don't get me wrong: Especially in its TouchPad incarnation, WebOS has attractive UI touches that many will like and may end up being copied by competitors. But ultimately, WebOS remains a me-too mobile OS that relies on the HP brand more than anything to succeed. Palm tried that and failed. I suspect HP will too. I hope I'm wrong, and I look forward to seeing how the real products work this summer.

Of course, by summer when the Pre 3 and TouchPad finally ship, the iPad 2, the new iPhone, the new Android 3.0 tablets and smartphones, and the RIM PlayBook tablet will have shipped -- and we all may have forgotten about WebOS.

What may keep WebOS in your mind past this summer is HP's intent to bring WebOS into future printers and PCs. How? HP is not saying, so it could be as minor as adding the sync capabilities to the desktop to providing the WebOS as a parallel or even integrated coexisting OS to Windows. In the meantime, though, that's just vaporware -- nothing to plan on.

This article, "HP TouchPad and Pre: New products, but not new ideas," 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 business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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