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And Then There Were Three: H-P and the Future of Mobile Operating Systems
Moore’s Law describes a long-term technological trend, whereby the capability of electronic devices doubles roughly every two years. Intel (INTC - Free Intel Stock Report) co-founder and tech pioneer Gordon E. Moore first observed this phenomenon in his groundbreaking paper, published in 1965. But even he might be surprised at just how prescient his theories turned out to be.
The mobile devices of today bear little resemblance to the cell phones of the not-so-distant past, rapidly evolving into small computers that fit in the palm of your hand. This space is crowded with hardware and software makers alike, all contending for the attention—and buying power—of consumers around the world. However, many tech watchers believe the field will eventually narrow down to three dominant systems, with two seats likely reserved for industry leader Apple (AAPL) and its juggernaut iOS platform and search giant Google (GOOG) and its mutli-headed Android operating system. In Part 1 of our 3-Part series, we took a closer look at software maker Microsoft (MSFT - Free Microsoft Stock Report), and its chances of claiming that final seat. We now turn our attention to another tech bellwether, computer maker Hewlett-Packard (HPQ - Free Hewlett-Packard Stock Report), a company with a somewhat checkered past in the mobile space.
Though a leader in computer hardware and peripherals, and one of the biggest technology companies in the world, Hewlett-Packard has long been considered an also-ran in the mobile device market, despite a history dating back more than a decade. In fact, H-P first ventured into handsets in 1998 with the Jornada, a small handheld computer that could send and receive faxes, though it lacked the ability to make phone calls. A highly contentious merger with Compaq Computer followed a few years later, which resulted in the Jornada being phased out and replaced by Compaq’s similar iPAQ pocket PC. Despite that experience, H-P seemed completely unprepared for the smartphone revolution that followed, and subsequent iPAQ models failed to catch on with consumers.
Although H-P remained a leader in traditional PCs, its prospects in the mobile device market continued to dim, with a dwindling share of the enterprise segment and no presence to speak of in consumer products. Knowing full well that all-things mobile will almost certainly define the tech sector for the foreseeable future, the company made a big splash in late 2010 when it scooped up struggling smartphone maker Palm for a little over $1 billion. Perhaps more important, H-P gained access to Palm’s highly-touted WebOS operating system, with plans to extend the platform from smartphones to tablet PCs, H-P-branded printers and scanners, and even its tried-and-true desktop and laptop computers.
Though Palm came at a relative bargain (at the time, H-P had nearly $14 billion in cash and equivalents on hand), it also brought along its fair share of baggage. It’s clear that Palm put a lot of care and attention into WebOS, widely hailed for its fluid interface, true multitasking capabilities, and an enviable set of features. However, for all the TLC lavished on the operating system, it became just as apparent that the hardware married to that OS was lackluster at best, and, at times, downright poor. Indeed, Palm built a well-earned reputation for innovative software, but also came to be known, in recent years, for indifferent industrial design, cheap materials, and subpar build quality. Palm also suffered from long gestation periods between the announcement of new products and their availability on the market, a liability in the consumer segment where the collective attention span keeps getting shorter.
Well aware of this phenomenon and the pitfalls it entails, H-P seems determined to close that gap, or at the very least, narrow it considerably. Cutting edge design and build quality isn’t necessarily an H-P hallmark, but it does have a wealth of experience at high-tech manufacturing and considerable economies of scale, which ought to drive down materials and component costs. The company’s vast, far-reaching distribution channel is another asset, giving consumers more ways to test drive H-P products.
Although a couple of new offerings recently reached the market, H-P seems to be saving its big guns for the second half of 2011, when it plans to unveil a diverse family of WebOS products, including a host of smartphones and tablets. Hewlett-Packard has, in effect, staked its entire mobile strategy on WebOS, a world-class operating system long in need of worthwhile hardware. Only time will tell if the products of this union are up to the considerable challenges that lie ahead.
• Wealth of manufacturing experience
• The prospect of H-P products bundled together sounds compelling
• Vast, efficient distribution channels
• WebOS is widely regarded for its fluid, intuitive user interface
• Many consumers were burned by cheap, underwhelming Palm hardware in recent years
• Negligible market share (and shrinking) outside of Palm/WebOS loyalists
• WebOS has fallen far behind the competition in applications
• Ecosystem (products/peripherals) just isn’t there yet
At the time of this article’s writing, the author did not have any positions in any of the companies mentioned.