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

[UPDATED 2/9] Today, Hewlett-Packard unveiled its grand plan for WebOS, 10 months after it bought Palm and its mobile OS. HP's hints since the Palm acqusition suggested there'll be one or more new WebOS smartphones to replace the Palm Pre, one or more tablets based on WebOS, and Internet appliances such as printers running WebOS so that they can do some processing without being tied to a computer. In fact, HP announced one tablet (the TouchPad), two smartphones (the Pre 3 and Veer), and vague plabns to bring WebOS to printers and PCs in the future. The new devices won't ship for several months.

It's a risky strategy, as it forces HP to swim against the Apple iOS (iPhone and iPad) and Google Android tides pounding both the consumer and business markets. Microsoft, Nokia, and Research in Motion have all been swept away by the surge (though they're still trying to swim), and it's not clear how HP will fare any better. Despite its hype, HP doesn't have something magically different up its sleeve that will turn heads in an unprecedented, lasting way. Of course, HP is hardly known for carrying off such feats in the rest of its computer business, so it's hard to imagine why WebOS would buck that history.

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What HP is good at is making decent systems using the same hardware and operating system as everyone else -- in other words, Windows PCs. HP brings little significant innovation to the mix, though it occasionally innovates around the edges, as in the attempts to popularize touchscreen PCs it began a couple years ago and still tries to pursue. As a result, HP makes a solid product at a decent price, and it's used that strategy to become the No. 1 PC maker in the world, as competitors suffered quality, branding, and distribution issues.

When you look at the Android market, it's very similar to the Windows PC market: The smartphone and tablet makers are using the same hardware underneath (that's why their specs all sound alike), as well as the same OS, with minor UI variations. Sure, Samsung stands out with its brilliant AMOLED displays, HTC has its Sense UI overlay, and Motorola Mobility spotlights its keyboard and "world phone" models -- but their differences are ultimately small ones. By and large, Android smartphones are as interchangeable as PCs.

Because HP excels in the PC market, it stands to reason that it would do so in the Android market. Plus, HP might have an advantage in the tablet segment of the Android market. Tablets are more like PCs than phones, and HP's PC reputation should carry over to tablets, especially for business users, moreso than the cell phone reputations of HTC, Motorola Mobility, and Samsung would.

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