HP's TouchPad tablet: a new major player shows its hand

HP is gambling that its sophisticated WebOS operating system will earn it a seat at the mobile-technology table along with Apple and Android. Now all it needs is buyers.

HP is gambling that its sophisticated WebOS operating system will earn it a seat at the mobile-technology table along with Apple and Android. Now all it needs is buyers.

A new tablet called the TouchPad was introduced Wednesday (Jan. 9) by Hewlett-Packard (HP), using technology that has the potential to add greater choice, as well as further confusion, for consumers making an investment in today’s mobile technology.

The tablet was the key device, along with two mobile smartphones, marking HP’s introduction of the WebOS operating system to its product line. HP acquired WebOS when it bought Palm Computing last April for a reported $1.2 billion. No pricing was announced, but since these units are clearly designed to do major battle with Apple’s market-leading iPad/iPhone one-two punch, a good guess is that prices will be similar to Apple's.

While tablets are tumbling helter-skelter into the market, virtually all chasing Apple’s gargantuan success, the majority have featured some variation of Google’s Android operating system. Palm’s WebOS brings a technological sophistication to the world of operating systems that neither Apple nor Google currently have, most prominently in the way the system handles multitasking. In simple terms, WebOS devices handle applications more like a desktop computer than either of the two market leaders.

The TouchPad is scheduled for release this summer in a Wi-Fi-only version; 3G and 4G versions will come later.

This will be no cakewalk for HP. While the operating-system benefits will appeal to techies, most consumers look at mobile hardware as support systems for software applications: TV, movies, games, books, etc. Apple’s glaring and purposeful omission of Flash animation technology is an irritant, but it hasn’t stopped buyers from purchasing iPads and iPhones — and more than 10 billion apps.

Market leader Apple has an estimated 400,000 app options. The Android phone market and the swiftly expanding lineup of Android tablets have roughly 200,000 choices. Microsoft’s Windows 7 smartphone is far behind in phone sales and apps. Blackberry phones are not known for being app-centric.

HP therefore has a huge task ahead of it. If its tablet comes to market without a healthy dose of strong market-ready apps, it may very well be judged DOA — dead on arrival.

The company seems quite aware of this issue, however. One sign was a hire announced Tuesday, reported by Mobile Crunch, of a former Apple and Lucasfilm executive whose task appears to be to convince developers to create WebOS apps. “Now [HP] just needs apps. Lots, and lots of apps,” the report concluded.

Another indication was the company’s announcement that it plans to introduce WebOS desktop and laptop computers. It was not clear whether those systems would be all-WebOS machines, or would be an add-on to laptops similar to HP’s QuickPlay: a lightweight “layer” that lets you use a browser or check for email without waiting for the full operating system to load up.

That detail could tip off HP’s plans for an “eco-system” approach to WebOS, along the lines of Apple’s cross-platform approach. If WebOS can be an add-on, consumers could buy WebOS products and link them to their present computers without dumping Windows.

Given all this background, HP’s introductions have more than raised a collective eyebrow in the tech community. The tablet and two phones introduced by the company were well in keeping with the sophistication of its operating system.

The TouchPad is roughly the same size and shape as the iPad: 7.5 by 9.5 inches, and slightly over a half-inch thick, weighing 1.6 pounds. The pad outscores the iPad, on paper at least, in its power and resolution: a fast, 1.2-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon dual-core processor, an 18-bit, color, 1,024 x 768 resolution screen; and 16GB or 32GB of storage. Battery life may be roughly the same, according to one analysis. What about USB or SD cards? That wasn’t mentioned.

Other features include a front-facing 1.3 megapixel webcam for live video calling, a hot Dr. Dre-developed Beats audio system, and a prominent role for Flash. (Take that, Apple!).

What does WebOS do differently? According to an HP press release, phone calls and text messaging can be answered on the TouchPad. Websites can be shared between WebOS phones and the tablet. Multiple apps can run simultaneously on the tablet. “[WebOS] helps you do all the things you want to do, all at once,” the release notes.

While there are no hands-on reviews yet, reports of the OS functionality appears similar to Palm’s WebOS phones from a year ago.

Regarding apps, the press introduction showed a software virtual keyboard that can be resized, plus the QuickOffice productivity suite, Amazon Kindle book reader, the Dr. Dre Beats audio system, Facebook, Snapfish, publications from Time Inc.’s magazine stable, and movies via HP’s own movie store.

The HP WebOS phones include the Veer, a credit card-sized smartphone, and the Pre3, which features a hardware keyboard. PC World has a good summary of that part of Wednesday’s announcement.

Can HP pull off this hat trick? Time will tell if the company can quickly mount the support it needs to become a contender. The path is strewn with major corporate efforts that turned into wannabes because they didn’t read the market correctly.


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