When HP introduced its HP TouchPad consumer tablets built on Palm's webOS, my immediate reaction was to wonder if even a company with the resources of HP could force yet another mobile platform into the burgeoning consumer mobile computing market. The announcement itself was hardly a surprise. HP bought Palm Computing, the PDA pioneer that had been floundering in recent years, basically to acquire the webOS operating platform. Given that HP has never dabbled in the smartphone market, a consumer tablet was the obvious expectation. And from a technical standpoint, webOS is an an interesting alternative.
But the problem for HP is that the consumer mobile tablet market is already crowded. Apple, which created the market with the iPad a year ago, is a shoe-in to continue its ownership with the brilliant iPad 2. In recent months RIM has entered the market with the Blackberry Playbook, which it is selling both to SMBs and consumers, while several manufacturers have introduced Google Android-based tablets. Symbion, which is a popular smart phone platform in Europe, seems to be hovering in the wings, while a Microsoft Windows 7 Phone tablet is certainly also a possibility. On the high end, HP itself has the Slate 500, a beautiful-looking tablet that runs the full Windows 7 OS and therefore can run any Windows applications up to and including PhotoShop, AutoCAD, and complex graphing and statistical analysis packages. At $800 this device is priced above the consumer market price-point, but HP never intended it to sell it there – the Slate's target is SMBs.
The problem for the HP TouchPad is that mobile computing devices rise or fall based on the apps they can run. The iPad has a huge library of those apps; the Android app library is growing rapidly; RIM is bringing its own communications-oriented apps that won it a major market in business and a smaller but loyal following among consumers to the Playbook. What does the webOS have outside of a few games?
The issue here is that webOS is unlike any of the other platforms technically and no user population outside of HP employees. This makes porting apps to this platform time-consuming and unrewarding in terms of sales. HP certainly does have the resources to turn that situation around, but it would take a heavy investment in incentives and direct financial support to third-party developers to get them to port or create new innovative applications for webgOS instead of continuing to develop for the iPads that hold 90%+ of the tablet market. And HP has many other markets and products to invest in. So just how much it is willing to devote to webOS is questionable.
In fact, it may have just answered that question. HP has just redesigned its Web site, and in the process it seems to have lost the webOS. The pages are still there, but the only way I could find them was to do a search for “TouchPad”. A week ago the three TouchPad models were prominently displayed among the consumer laptops. Now clicking on the “Laptop, Tablet, and Netbook PCs” item on the pull-down menu on the HP consumer home page takes me to a page totally devoid of webOS. This could be an oversight, but more likely it is an indication that HP is going to let webOS die a quiet death. A sad ending to Palm Computing, particularly to those of us who carried Palm PDAs for years, but hardly unexpected.
Action Item: If you are looking for a completely portable solution that supports the kind of organizational functionality of the old Palm PDAs, your best bet probably is the HP Slate or Blackberry Playbook. Don't gamble on the HP TouchPads until or unless real third-party app support starts to appear. They may not be around that long.