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HP’s desktop plans for WebOS could flip PC market, say analysts

Mar 10, 2011 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 3 views

Many analysts are applauding HP's decision to place its Linux-based WebOS on all of its Windows-based PCs in 2012 as an alternative fast-boot distro, but some caution it could alienate Microsoft. The deployment will represent a huge leap forward for Linux on the desktop, albeit in a limited capacity — and HP may be grooming WebOS for a bigger desktop role.

Hewlett-Packard's reported intention to port its recently acquired, Linux-based WebOS onto its PCs could be a smart move for the company, according to analysts. But it also risks antagonizing Microsoft, which until this point has been a major software partner.

As eWEEK reported yesterday, a Mar. 9 Bloomberg report quotes HP CEO Leo Apotheker (pictured at right in a Bloomberg shot) as saying the company plans to include WebOS on all of HP's laptop and desktop PCs in 2012. According to the story, Apotheker said the move would create "a massive platform," with devices presumably running WebOS alongside Windows in a dual-boot configuration. The first such systems will apparently begin shipping in early 2012.

HP inherited WebOS when it purchased Palm for $1.2 billion in 2010. While Palm had limited use of the operating system to its Palm Pre smartphones, HP's intentions are much more broad-based, with designs on installing the OS on smartphones, tablets, printers, and now, laptops and desktops.

On Feb. 9, HP unveiled the WebOS-based TouchPad tablet (pictured), which features a 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor, 16GB or 32GB of built-in memory, and integration with WebOS smartphones. (The latter include one of the two new WebOS smartphones that were announced at the time, the HP Pre 3 ; the company also announced a lower-end HP Veer phone.)

However the market responds to HP's efforts, the company likely faces something of an uphill battle in audience adoption for WebOS. According to the latest Net Applications data, market share across all versions of the Windows franchise stands at 89.69 percent, followed by Apple at 5.19 percent. In addition, Google plans on launching a cloud-oriented Chrome OS Linux distro that may also compete for its piece of the desktop market pie.

That being said, some analysts regard HP's move as a beneficial one for the company. "WebOS is HP's Trojan horse to marry Cloud, Mobile and Social," Ray Wang, principal analyst of Constellation Research, wrote in a March 10 email to eWEEK. "It's a smart move in leveraging an underused asset."

In theory, WebOS would allow HP to create Apple-style synergy between products in different categories, a task that it has already begun with a Touchstone-related technology on the TouchPad that lets users tap the HP Pre 3 against the tablet's screen to exchange URLs and text messages.

Unlike Apple, though, HP risks alienating a crucial partner. "I have little doubt this further soured the relationship between HP and Microsoft, who likely wasn't given any heads up on this and has undoubtedly had to explain it to board members, financial analysts and a number of customers by now," Rob Enderle, principal analyst of the Enderle Group, wrote in a March 10 email to eWEEK. "HP remains Microsoft's biggest seller of Windows PCs, and anything they can do to weaken the franchise — and this does that on paper — is a problem for them."

In the meantime, a more immediate challenge presents itself to HP with WebOS: the tablet market. The TouchPad's hardware specs put it roughly level with other rivals in the space, but it nonetheless faces substantial competition from the likes of Apple's bestselling iPad and a rapidly multiplying number of Android tablets.

HP also hopes to reinvigorate the Palm line of smartphones, which have attracted critical praise from some quarters but a generalized drubbing in the marketplace.

Rediscovering HP's soul

In the Bloomberg interview, Apotheker said that HP plans to treat its employees as more of a company resource, and to treat India, where HP has thousands of staff, as a proper market, versus just a source of low-cost labor.

"HP has lost its soul," Apotheker told the publication. "The first thing I wanted to do when I joined HP was listen to the people. The rank and file usually know about all the shortcomings."

Back in January, there was speculation that HP was prepping a WebOS-based netbook. Nothing more came of that rumor, but last month at the end of the TouchPad unveiling in San Francisco, Steven McArthur, HP's senior vice president for the consumer applications hinted at a desktop role for WebOS.

"Apple and Google…have a world where they're bifurcated between their mobile apps, with their portable systems and their desktop systems," McArthur reportedly said at the event. "We think it's possible to do that in a much more elegant way, and deliver this ecosystem on a PC."

Currently, HP offers the Linux- and Splashtop-based "QuickWeb" fast boot option on a number of Windows 7 notebooks such as the Pavilion dm1z (pictured), as well as netbooks such as the HP Mini 210. However, very few HP systems are offered with a full Linux installation (when they are, it's typically Novell's SUSE Linux).

A wider sampling of responses to HP's WebOS desktop plans filtered from a more Redmond-centric viewpoint may be found on our sister site, Microsoft Watch. Meanwhile, Steven Vaughan-Nichols evaluates the news from a Linux viewpoint over on ZDNet.

Like some of the other analysts quoted in the Microsoft Watch story, Vaughan-Nichols speculates that once established on the desktop, WebOS could be expanded in functionality to handle the job on its own, enabling HP to reduce its dependence on Redmond while also reducing prices for its customers. 

A video featuring excerpts from the interview with Leo Apotheker may be found on the Bloomberg site.

Nicholas Kolakowski is a writer for our sister publication eWEEK.

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