Of Course HP Will Enter the Smartphone Market Again

Two weeks ago, the industry was abuzz with discussion about Meg Whitman’s Fox Business interview on September 13. There, she said HP must ultimately offer a smartphones. This set off a chain of new stories, some aghast that HP would be considering something like this given HP’s last foray in phones. Most of the ire stems from HP’s exit and dismantling of Palm and webOS last year versus a strategic analysis. Upon closer analysis though, this makes perfect, strategic sense for HP.

HP’s last foray in phones didn’t end pretty. In less 18 months, Palm and webOS was acquired by HP and then shuttered. In less than 60 days, the HP TouchPad was launched then discontinued. There was nothing positive about how this ended for HP, Palm, webOS, retail partners, employees or its app ecosystem. At this point, none of this matters in the future and it really is time to move on. The discussion must start at the value of the smartphone.

I have been unapologetically bullish on where I see smartphones into the future. There is a credible scenario where the smartphone could take on most of our client computing roles. In this scenario, the smartphone is a modular device, which “beams” data to wireless displays and peripherals. Modular operating systems with modular development environments like Android and Windows will enable developers to write once and deploy to many different kind of form factors. Just imagine how much better this will be in five years. Even at IDF 2012, Intel showed this scenario in their WiGig video, albeit with a tablet, but there’s nothing to keep this from being a phone. I want to be clear that this (heavy modularity) will only happen if PC usage models stagnate to the point where they don’t need tremendously more compute performance or storage. If Intel is successful with their Perceptual Computing initiative, the probability of this scenario greatly decreases as the smartphone won’t be able to deliver the required performance. HP then must develop a smartphone if they want to be in the future client hardware business. Meg Whitman also talked emerging markets.

Meg Whitman touched on this modularity potential when she talked emerging regions. She talked about how in some countries, the smartphone would be their first computing device and in some cases their only computing device, meaning they will never own a PC or tablet. The first point here is price. In many countries, people will only be able to afford one device, and that device will be a smartphone. Secondly, due to the modularity scenario described above, it will extend to other usage models, like desktop computing. I don’t think anyone can find fault in Meg Whitman’s logic. Let’s now look into enterprise.

Today, two of the biggest buzzwords is “BYOD” or the “consumerization of IT”. Don’t confuse this with the ability to get corporate mail on your iPhone. That’s not BYOD. BYOD is getting full enterprise network, application, security, and management access. That’s a lot different than mail, but many “experts” do confuse this very important point. Imagine how important this is in a healthcare, financial, government, or even any business that develops any kind of IP. You get the point. This is where HP could meet a need for a phone and enterprise management system for that phone, so it is managed just like an enterprise PC. Given HP’s enterprise focus, it makes perfect sense for HP to offer an enterprise-class smartphone with enterprise security, manageability, and deployment capabilities. Does this mean it will be an ugly brick? No. I’m speculating a bit, but I think it will be an attractive phone, but it will be durable enough to be dropped once without shattering the screen or glass backing. As its designed for durability, it will be waterproof, too. HP has an opportunity, the one opportunity that RIM and BlackBerry missed, and that’s an enterprise phone.

There are many strategic reasons for HP to offer a smartphone that are very logical, given the enterprise and emerging region needs explored above. Given HP’s enterprise focus and experience in managed client devices, they have a lot of value to add, too. Add that to the modularity scenario and it essentially would make HP look crazy not to get back into smartphones. I outlined here that PC makers cannot run away from smartphones, so I am very happy to see HP getting back in. As for execution? While fresh in the industry’s mind, I think it’s time for all of us to get beyond webOS and give HP another shot.

Palm: The End of a Long and Troubled Road

Palm P{ilot photo
The original Palm

I was delighted back in the spring of 2010 when Hewlett-Packard announced it was buying Palm. I’ve been a fan of Palm for 15 years, but throughout its history, the company has always been hamstrung by a lack of adequate financial resources. With mighty HP behind it,  Palm could finally reach its destiny.

I couldn’t imagine that 20 months later, after wasting more than $3 billion, HP would put Palm’s sole remaining asset, the webOS operating system, out at the curb with a “Free to a Good Home” sign around its neck. (I’m sorry, I simply cannot credit HP CEO Meg Whitman’s claim in an interview with The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky that we’d eventually see new HP tablets and smartphones powered by webOS.  If HP meant that, it  wouldn’t have let the webOS team scatter to the winds.)

But if it’s a sad end to the Palm line, it is somehow a fitting one. Palm always  was a company that couldn’t buy a break.

Palm’s  troubles started at the very beginning. Having failed to raise venture capital funding to get the original Palm Pilot manufactured and marketed, founders Donna Dubinsky, Jeff Hawkins, and Ed Colligan had to sell the company to modem maker U.S. Robotics in 1996. Almost immediately, U.S. Robotics turned around and sold itself to 3Com. It’s not clear that 3Com was more than dimly aware that Palm was part of the deal. It certainly clear that 3Com never had any idea of what to do with it.

Palm was forced to stop using the Palm Pilot brand in a trademark dispute with the Pilot Pen Co.

After founders Dubinsky, Hawkins, and Colligan left in a dispute over strategy, 3Com spun Palm into two companies, PalmOne, which made PDA hardware, and PalmSource, which owned the operating system. The goal was to license Palm software to third parties, but the only really significant licensee it signed was Handspring, the company started by Dubinsky, et. al. PalmOne (which later renamed itself Palm) struggled with constant management turmoil, while PalmSource struggled, mostly without luck, to modernize Palm’s increasingly creaky operating system.

Meanwhile, the crew at Handspring managed to turn the Palm into the first real smartphone, the Treo.  Eventually, in a bity of financial judo, Handspring merged with Palm and the company regains the right to develop its own OS, which by then had been sold to Access, a japanese software company.

Alas, it was really too late. Money was as short as ever and drastic action was needed to save the Palm OS from hopeless obsolence (by this point, Palm was becoming largely an OEM of Windows Mobile phones.)  In 2008, Palm got a $100 million infusion from Roger McNamee’s Silver Lake Partners and former  Apple hardware guru Jon Rubenstein came aboard, eventually as CEO. The new team produced webOS and got it into the Palm Pre, but the hardware never won the accolades the software earned. It was a modest success at best and the money drain continued.

The HP acquisition was supposed to change Palm’s fortunes for good, but of course we know how that turned out. But given the soap opera history, the ending should hardly be a surprise.

Open Source webOS: A Nice Gesture, but a Sad End

In the end, Hewlett-Packard could neither use webOS to gain a foothold in the smartphone and tablet market, nor could it sell the operating system it acquired as part of the $1.2 billion purchase of Palm last year. So it is giving it away, releasing the code and the application framework under an open source license. The sad truth is that we are unlikely to ever again see webOS in a commercially viable smartphone or tablet.

Sad face TouchPadFor webOS to have a real life after HP, some hardware maker would have had to snap it up. But the likeliest suspects, Samsung and HTC, already have their hands full with Android and Windows Phone, and perhaps Windows 8 too. Amazon was a rumored buyer, but it has little interest in taking on a major OS development project; it’s doing just fine with an old version of Android.

The problem is that successful mobile software has to be co-developed with the hardware it runs on. Of the current mobile players, the one pure software company, Google, is getting into hardware with the purchase of Motorola Mobility. And it continues to work intimately with its leading hardware partners on design. Microsoft gives its Windows Phone hardware partners very limited freedom in their design choices. Apple, of course, is the maestro of integrated mobile hardware and software, and it was in an attempt to emulate Apple’s success that HP bought Palm in the first place.

There’s a good reason for this. The mobile user experience depends to a huge degree on how smoothly the hardware and software work together. A huge part of Apple’s success is based on the fact that it and third-party iOS developers know every detail of the very limited variety of devices they write for. In that environment, the hardware and software become one, and this makes for happy users.

Attempts to develop mobile operating systems in isolation have a sorry history. Intel and various partners tried with Moblin, MeeGo, and Tizen and left us with nothing but a pile of odd names.  The LiMo Foundation had no greater success with its attempt to create a mobile Linux.

I’m sure open source webOS will attract a bunch of enthusiastic developers, who will succeed in getting it to run on commodity hardware. But if there were a real chance of getting a product out of this, someone would have shown interest in buying webOS for what I am sure was a bargain-basement price. Instead, they saw a pit full of Pres and TouchPads and 3 billion of HP shareholders’ dollars.

The sad end of webOS is a terrible shame. It was an extremely promising operating system that never really got a chance, hobbled as it was first by the financial weakness of Palm and then by the incompetence and lack of staying power of HP. It deserved much better.

How Will HP Hold webOS Talent

HP logoJoshua Topolsky at This IsMyNext has details on an all-hands meeting at which Stephen DeWitt, head of HP’s webOS business unit, declared that “we are not walking away from webOS” and promised an outline for the future within a couple of weeks.

In an earlier post, I outlined some of the difficulties that any webOS licensing strategy would face. By DeWitt inadvertently points out one I overlooked: How  on earth is HP going to hang on to any good talent in a market where Apple, Google, Microsoft, and a flock of handset makers are all competing fiercely? The webOS unit is a defunct operation within a division–HP’s Personal Systems Group–whose own future is highly uncertain. A first-rate engineer can sit around waiting to see how things turn out–or can have half a dozen job offers nearly immediately.

Richard Kerris, director of webOS developer relations, tried to put the best face on things in a tweet, but the effect and more sad than encouraging:

HP’s TouchPad-Can it compete with Apple’s iPad and Android Tablets?

Over the last few weeks I have spent a lot of time testing out two new tablets that are now on the market. The first is the Samsung 10.1” Galaxy Tab and the second is the new Palm TouchPad. Up until these two tablets came out it was clear to me that Apple pretty much had the tablet market to themselves. And while I had also tested the 7 inch Galaxy Tab, the 7 inch Zoom and the 7 inch RIM PlayBook, I felt that the real competition for the iPad would only come when we had tablets with 9- 10 inch screens that rivaled the iPad’s design.

For a full week I carried all three of these tablets with me everywhere I went and used them each for all of the basic tasks I do daily on a tablet. All three have very good Web browsers although Flash works just like it does on a PC on the TouchPad. All three have good touch based user interfaces. And to some degree, they actually all looked the same when I laid them down on a table and the screen was turned off. As I have stated in previous articles, one major attraction of a tablet to me is that it is a highly portable screen that serves as a window to the Internet, applications and ultimately the cloud. Of course, once you pick them up you notice immediately that the iPad is the sleekest of the bunch and the new Palm Touchpad is the thickest of the three.

Much has been written about the iPad so I won’t spend any time on this elegant product that, at the moment, dominates the tablet market. And there are dozens of reviews out on the Galaxy Tab as well. And reviews for RIM’s Playbook are also plentiful. So for this article I would like to share some thoughts on HP’s Touchpad, the newest tablet on the market and I will focus on two pressing questions.

The first question I get asked often is whether the Palm Touchpad is competitive?
The simple answer is yes it is. We have worked with Web OS for many years and consider this the most stable mobile OS on the market next to Apple’s IOS. And although our familiarity with Web OS has mainly come through the Pre, using it on the tablet now was as easy as it was when I first got the iPad and used IOS on it the same way I had used it on the iPhone. In that sense, Palm Pre users will feel right at home with this tablet.

With that in mind, it is clear to me from a hardware and software OS standpoint, that this is a solid product and one that is more then competitive at these levels. However, this leads me to the second major question I get often.
Can HP/Palm be successful with the TouchPad coming to market this late and with very little software support from the 3rd party developers?

This is a harder question to answer and one that needs to focus on three key things that HP/Palm need to do to make it a market winner.

First, they have to step up their efforts with the third party community and drive them to create thousands of native apps for the TouchPad. When I used native Web OS apps on the TouchPad that are identical to ones that are on the iPad or Android platforms, they looked just as good and worked the same as the do on these other operating systems. And in some cases, thanks to the Touchpad’s UI and multitasking, some worked even better.

On the test unit I had, many of the 6500 Web OS apps available at launch were apps written for the 3.5 inch Pre screens and do not scale to the 9.7  inch screen on the Touchpad. And unlike Apple’s iPhone apps on the iPad, they don’t even have a 2X button to artificially make them scale to a full screen and just sit in a 3.5 inch window in the center of the TouchPad. Although these apps work, they clearly do not take advantage of this new screen real estate. However, there are 300 apps written for the Touchpad that do work in full screen mode. This to me is perhaps their greatest challenge given the fact that Apple has over 60,000 native apps for the iPad and counting and Android has bout 10,000 tablet apps and strong developers support for this platform.

Second, they are going to need to make sure their channel partners really know how to sell the Touchpad and can demonstrate the areas where it differentiates from the iPad and Android tablets. Unlike Apple, who has their stores to enhance the selling process of the iPad, HP has to lean on its hundreds of thousands retailers of all sizes to sell this new product for them. And I believe they will need to spend serious ad dollars over the next 18 months around the world if they want to make any dent in the iPad and Android Tablet market share that is growing by leaps and bounds.

But the third thing that they need to do is put a tight focus on tablet solutions for the enterprise. They need to deliver a seamless integration of the TouchPad with their current IT services and solutions programs. The market for tablets is very crowded in the consumer space and even if they get more apps and spend more ad dollars pushing people to the channel to buy the Touchpad, they have a lot of competition from Apple and Google there. On the other hand the enterprise market for tablets is in its infancy. Yes, Apple has made some impressive headway in enterprise but this is not their primary focus for the iPad. And Windows 8 for Tablets is still a year away and Android’s lack of major security software and enterprise apps has slowed down its adoption in the enterprise.

But HP pretty much owns the enterprise for PC’s, laptops and servers and with a major focus on integrating the Touchpad into their overall IT solutions program, HP could deliver a powerful tablet that enterprises could adopt in large numbers. I consider this a critical factor for the TouchPad’s ultimate success and all indications are that HP is going to key in on the enterprise with this new tablet of theirs as well as extend Web OS to PC platforms to give developers even more incentive to create apps for Web OS. HP has hinted that they will ship as many as 100 million Web OS devices yearly, of which 70-75 million will be integrated into their PC’s and tablets.

Given the strong lead Apple has in the tablet market and the inroads Android is making via its various licensees, HP will clearly have an uphill battle coming to the market this late with their new TouchPad. But I am very bullish on it’s the quality of its OS and even the Touchpad’s solid design. If they can get strong software support as well as make enterprise a key target for this tablet, then the TouchPad can clearly be competitive and could become a third solid tablet device that consumers and business users can choose from in the years ahead.

Good Advice to Tech Leaders

My Friend Louis Gray posted a great article a few weeks ago called “Tech Leaders Don’t Win By Saying They’ll Crush Somebody.” I have to say I can’t agree more and I encourage all tech leaders to read the article.

All though I understand that some of these executives logic may be PR related, at the same time more often than not those types of statements accomplish the exact opposite goals of their original intention.

Louis states in his article:

Look at who is on top today in whatever category makes sense for you. Social networking. Search. Mobile OS. Tablets. Storage systems. Operating systems. Printers. You name it. You would be hard-pressed to see those companies having talked big about taking down number one when they were on their pathway to success. They probably didn’t do it at all.

The primary point being that the best posture to take is to talk more about your own products than the products of competitors.