HP has reported that it might again try to release a smartphone. To add a little context for those who may not be aware, HP bought Palm, which, once upon a time, made and sold smartphones. It did so in April of 2010, and by the time of the first release of products in 2011 (the HP Pre 3 and the HP TouchPad, both running webOS), the company had announced that it would cease hardware production at both phone and tablet divisions. It later gave webOS up as open source, and has been working since then to make it so. In a recent interview, Meg Whitman announced that in order to continue to compete as a “computing” company, it must once again design and sell smartphones. Her justification for this is that, in our modern age, the first computing device that a person picks up may well be a smartphone rather than a fully fledged laptop or computer. Although this opens a debate as to what a computing device actually is, I’d prefer to assess HP’s options in this strategy.
I’m going to be assuming throughout this article that what HP means by a smartphone is a webOS device, rather than adopting either Android or Windows Phone, and examining the strategy that the company might adopt in using it. Now I’m pretty miffed — some might say angered — by this news. I’m not annoyed by the potential revival of webOS, because I love that idea. webOS is great. I’m more disturbed by the blasÃ© nature with which HP seems to be approaching the smartphone industry. As it stands, there are two companies that are dominating: Apple and Samsung; all others are struggling. This has been well documented elsewhere. My point is that to walk into the market simply isn’t possible, and to do so with an OS that, as far as I can tell, has a market presence of zero (no devices being sold) is an exercise in futility. What it’s going to require, and what I hope the strategy team at HP has planned, is a vital rethink of exactly what it wants to achieve by entering the market. Is it to simply spread the HP name, to grow webOS as a smartphone ecosystem, or strengthen the relationship between the smartphone and the traditional computer? I’d like to proposition that by buying Palm, and with it webOS, that HP was making an effort to link together the traditional PC and the smartphone, but that it just didn’t have the necessary stratagems in place at the time in order to do so effectively.
With that in mind, when HP first purchased webOS, it had an opportunity to finally combine all the elements that have loosely existed for many years, the phone, the tablet and the PC. Apple has essentially achieved this with the iPhone, iPad, and Mac line, since they all operate together almost seamlessly. The aim is a conjoined and effortless interaction. Let’s flip it around to Windows. When HP first bought Palm and webOS with it in 2010 (April), the way was wide open to create an experience whereby a smartphone, a tablet, and a PC might interact together seamlessly. The opportunity HP had at the time was to make webOS and Windows (desktop) play nicely together. Windows Phone wasn’t to be released until November of the same year, giving the company the opportunity to properly break into the market. Now however, the gap is tightening on that particular prospect. Windows Phone is slowly taking the place that webOS might have taken alongside a traditional PC, and perhaps that’s a good thing. We can’t just expect two completely different philosophies, such as Windows and webOS to join hands and work together, and perhaps it’s a great thing that Microsoft is proposing through Windows Phone.
However, HP is still in a unique position where it holds all the elements in one hand. It already makes computers. It has access to webOS, which can be put to use on both tablets and smartphones. The company has shown that it can actually make a smartphones through the Pre 3, and a tablet through the TouchPad. There is still an “App Catalog” for webOS, though there aren’t many apps at this time. Unfortunately, in the two years since Palm’s purchase, things have changed. HP might try to present us with another smartphone, and inevitably a tablet, but it not only has to present an ecosystem to compete with Apple’s App Store, but also the Windows and Android equivalents. It will have to have hardware that is competitive and desirable enough to combat the iPhone 5 and whatever HTC and Samsung have up their sleeves. I would question here if webOS has the push to do that now. It was designed in 2009 for a completely different market rather than what exists now. It was bought in 2010 for $1.2 billion, effectively abandoned in 2011, and has lain effectively dormant since. It’s going to cost a lot more than $1.2 billion to even get off the ground, and it’ll be an expensive few years to even gain a foothold and start moving. There is also the question of whether there is even space for a fourth smartphone platform. We have the well-established iOS and Android, and Windows Phone as a powerful and elegant third challenger. webOS simply isn’t in a place right now that it can easily claim dominance in the market.
Is it the right move to go with an OS in which time and money have already been invested, or adopt a completely new one? I’d argue that, if HP wants to present the world with a computing platform that links together the smartphone, tablet, and PC, it needs to start thinking about an alternative such as Windows Phone. As much as it saddens me to say so, webOS simply isn’t in a strong enough position to woo the undecided. There might be die-hard fans out there who will always buy into the platform, as there is with any set of devices, but these simply aren’t the numbers that HP is aiming for if it’s approaching the smartphone market. In order to even gain a place in market-share, it has to aim for domination.
To conclude, maybe it sees the smartphone as the element that will help to resurrect or bolster its PC business. Not to strike too sombre a tone, but if you’re looking at things other than PCs to save your PC business, you really ought to question your role in that business. What the company needs to explain, not only to customers, but to itself, is exactly what it means by naming itself as a computing company, and what role the smartphone can actually play in the company as a whole. What it wants webOS to be, and where it wants to position itself in this grey area between the traditional PC worlds and the post-PC world, is a question that needs to be answered.