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$99 TouchPad a hit, as Ubuntu and Android ports emerge

Aug 22, 2011 — by Eric Brown — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 2 views

Sales of the “discontinued” HP TouchPad have been brisk after its price was cut to as little as $99, and hackers are working overtime to port Ubuntu and Android to the WebOS-based tablet. Meanwhile, analysts speculate on who might acquire HP's WebOS operations, which include a 2,000-plus patent portfolio that one analyst says could recoup the cost of HP's Palm acquisition.

When HP and Best Buy recently discounted the struggling HP TouchPad by 20 percent to $399 and $499 for the 16GB and 32GB models, respectively, consumers yawned. Yet, only a week later, the TouchPad (pictured) is the hottest selling tablet on the market. The difference-maker? Oh, about $300. 

Despite HP announcing Aug. 18 it was discontinuing its WebOS operations, the tablets have been flying off the shelves since Best Buy and other retailers dropped the Touchpad price to $99 and $149 (32GB), the tablets have been flying off the shelves, according to reports, including one from our sister publication eWEEK. The discounts are available at Best Buy's stores as well as its online retail site, and HP's own online store made the same price cuts.

HP will continue to support the Touchpad, as well as the Web-OS-based HP Pre 3 and HP Veer phones, via its one-year warranty plan, says the company.Yet, the proprietary (but Linux-based) WebOS is in limbo (see farther below).

If the future of the WebOS is precarious, with HP likely eager to sell off its operations as soon as it can find willing buyer(s), that didn't seem to bother shoppers. After all, for less than the cost of a no-name seven-inch Android tablet, they're receiving a $500 tablet.

The tablet received mixed reviews that were not much more negative than those meted out to a number of Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" tablets, including the Motorola Xoom. Meanwhile, a software update has partially corrected a major complaint about performance, says eWEEK.

Ubuntu and Android heading to TouchPad

New TouchPad owners may soon be able to port Android or Ubuntu to the tablet, according to several reports. In fact, hackers have already developed a rather convoluted way to load Ubuntu onto the TouchPad, as explained in detail by Liliputing. A homebrew package management app for WebOS called Preware can be used to do the trick, says the story.

As Liliputing puts it, the process is not only complicated, but is far from an organic Ubuntu port. "What you actually end up doing is partitioning the storage space on the tablet, installing Ubuntu alongside webOS, and then choosing which to run," says the story.

Meanwhile, a project associated with CyanogenMod, called TouchDroid, has popped up to announce plans to port Android 2.3 ("Gingerbread") to the TouchPad. The port essentially will be based on a CyanogenMod port of Gingerbread that has been tweaked for a larger screen, according to an AnandTech story.

TouchPad owners may have to wait awhile, as the project seems to have been a response to HP's announcement of its WebOS intentions last week, says the story. It is said that the port won't arrive at the very soonest until after Google's Ice Cream Sandwich release arrives in October to unify Honeycomb and Gingerbread releases.

As for famed modder Cyanogen (Steve Kondik), he has taken a job working for Samsung. Last week, Kondik confirmed earlier rumors about the new job, and told AndroidandMe that he will still be doing some work with the CyanogenMod community, but will principally be working on an Android project with Samsung.

HP's Palm WebOS patents in play?

The planned divestiture of HP's WebOS operations, which HP called the centerpiece of its acquisition of Palm in 2009, is the prelude to a larger sell-off of HP's PC business that should occur within the next 18 months, according to HP.

Both moves, as well as an announced acquisition bid for software and services vendor Autonomy, hinted of panic, according to an Aug. 20 analysis by eWEEK's Wayne Rash. Apparently, the stock market agreed with Rash, as HP's stock price has plummeted, although HP is also suffering from the general, ongoing stock sell-off.

One reason for HP's quick decision to discontinue WebOS might be the growing value of mobile device patents. Byte's Gina Smith places the number of mobile patents related to WebOS and Palm at 2,000.

"Filed over the years by such webOS pioneering inventors as Shervin Pishevar, many of these patents appear deep and broad on BYTE's initial investigation," writes Smith. "One filed by Pishevar and partners, held now by HP, for example covers mobile web operating systems' ability to work with servers in a client/server distributed computing relationship."

Could it be then that the current patent wars have overvalued mobile patents to the point that HP will off WebOS just to cash in on Palm's IP? Robert Scoble, writing on The Scobilizer, hints as much. Using as a marker the $12.5 billion Google promised to pay for Motorola Mobile and its 17,000 patents, if one prices HP's mobile patents accordingly on a per-patent basis, it adds up to $1.48 billion, he notes. HP ended up paying $1.7 billion for Palm, according to Scoble, "so that gets you pretty close to even."

Scoble goes on to note that the Palm patents relate to more modern, relevant mobile technology than that covered by most of the Motorola patents. Using similarly fuzzy math, he estimates that in the current patent market, they could be worth as much as double the Motorola patents, on a per-patent basis, or as much as $3 billion.

Acacia says it owns HP's Palm patents

The Palm acquisition, which was initially set for $1.2 billion, actually transpired at $1.8 billion, not $1.7 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal, which added another wrinkle to the HP patent story. The Journal's Don Clark quotes Paul Ryan, CEO of patent holding company Acacia Research Corp., as saying that Acacia holds rights to patents covering many of Palm mobile software inventions.

"We basically control the software, and HP controls the hardware," Ryan was quoted as saying.

Palm broke off a software unit called PalmSource, which was acquired for $324 million in 2005 by Japan's Access Co., which has a partnership with Acacia, explains Clark. Ryan told Clark that Acacia interprets the PalmSource contracts as suggesting that HP would need a license from Acacia to pursue plans recently tipped by HP to license WebOS to automotive and appliance manufacturers.

The Journal adds that Microsoft last October signed a deal with Acacia and Access to license 74 patents, including patents covering Palm's software inventions.

Meanwhile, according to Clark, there has been a new development in a patent case filed by Acacia in federal court in Tyler, Texas, against a wide array of smartphone makers. Already, several defendants, including Motorola, Nokia, and Research in Motion, have agreed to settle the charges. Now, according to court filings, defendants Apple, LG Electronics, and AT&T Mobility, have asked a federal judge to stay the proceedings while they pursue settlement negotiations.

WebOS team should attract attention, say reports

Whether or not HP's claims over the WebOS patents are significant and legitimate, HP's WebOS "talented" development team is worth a good deal on its own merits, writes Robert Scoble in the report cited farther above. In addition, the company has already largely designed a widely expected seven-inch tablet, he writes.

Meanwhile, Scoble is not alone in seeing WebOS as a valuable — although still unfinished — mobile operating system, with multitasking advantages over both iOS or Android. He cites a recent report that WebOS ran twice as fast on an iPad than it did on the TouchPad.

Scoble suggests that WebOS — patents, engineers, hardware, and all — will be sold to a single bidder, rather than split up. Possible suitors are said to include Microsoft, which is already trying to poach WebOS engineers from long-time partner HP, according to an eWEEK report.

Google, too, is still looking for more patent protection, and the Linux code at the heart of both Android and WebOS would suggest Google could make good use of the WebOS talent. Google certainly made good use of WebOS UI designer Matias Duarte, who went on to lead the Android 2.3 UI overhaul.

Also in the running is Apple, which would be attracted by the fact that many of the WebOS team previously worked at Apple on the original iPhone. And Facebook may be in the running as well, say the story.

At PCWorld. Katherine Noyes also puts Facebook on the WebOS shopping list, along with Samsung and HTC. Like other observers, she notes that smartphone vendors — even those that have announced support for Google's Motorola acquisition — are wary of Google showing signs of making Android proprietary or overtly favoring Motorola.

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