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HP fails to take advantage of WebOS

Analysis Palm Pre 2 and Slate both fall short
Wed Oct 27 2010, 15:20

MAKER OF EXPENSIVE PRINTER INK HP has in the last week reassured Apple that it can continue to run rough-shod over its customers and its rivals.

Some months ago The INQUIRER wrote about how HP's failings meant Apple could get away with putting out third-rate technology at premium prices. This last week has shown that HP still hasn't figured out what it needs to do to hold off Apple's onslaught.

First was the release of the HP Palm Pre 2 sporting the latest version of WebOS. Since its appearance at CES 2009, the phone has failed to set the world alight or compete with rivals like the Iphone or Android handsets.

WebOS has always been a great operating system, packing the right features and a beautiful and unique user interface that made so many want to believe that the billion or so dollars that HP paid for Palm over the summer was money well spent.

The disappointment of the Pre stemmed from the below par hardware coupled with botched launches outside of the US. And even with HP's decades of experience, it seems history is repeating itself.

Respectful of Palm's history, HP decided to stick with the branding for the Pre 2. But frankly it'll need more than just the goodwill gained from having Palm's logo on the device to shift the latest model because parts of the specifications sheet lead to head scratching. One has to wonder why, given the effort undertaken by most handset manufacturers to produce svelte smartphones, HP has decided to stick with the same pudgy design from two years ago.

What is less forgivable than design by tracing paper is the 3.1-inch screen. With a resolution of just 320x480, it is nothing short of an embarrassment. While the popular 480x800 resolution might have been a little too high for such a screen size, 320x480 was the same resolution found in the 2007 Apple Iphone, now almost four years old.

Other hardware is somewhat more up-to-date, with a 1GHz processor, 512MB RAM and 16GB of flash storage. But having a screen that originated in the dark ages is hardly going to help the firm sell the device, especially as it is what users first see when comparing devices.

Given that the Pre 2 is the first device to showcase WebOS 2, it would have been understandable for HP to go all out and bring out a showcase for its new operating system, an operating system that should be installed on a number of other HP devices in the near future. Instead we get a phone that looks identical to one that was shown nearly two years ago.

Then came the news that a French mobile operator would be the first to stock the Pre 2. Perhaps HP should have realised that France, and especially Paris, has been in violent protest for the past few months, culminating in the past two weeks seeing almost daily strikes and protests on the streets of Paris and many other cities. The idea to launch a pricey smartphone in a country that is protesting against austerity measures seems like folly rather than fortuitous.

However the decision to launch a new smartphone and operating system in a country which at the moment is concerned with far more important matters wasn't the last shock to come from HP in the space of a few days. That was left for the announcement that HP's mythical 'slate', first shown at CES 2010 by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, will finally tip up, at least in the US.

Many had hoped that the repeated delays combined with the purchase of Palm and statements mentioning HP's intention to produce tablet PCs running WebOS meant that the Slate would be rid of Microsoft's bloated Windows operating system. But alas HP delivered another dose of disappointment. With a $799 price tag came the news that it would run Windows 7, just as Ballmer had presented in Las Vegas.

Dubbed the Slate 500, HP not only picked the wrong operating system but once again made some curious hardware choices leading to an unfocused product. The netbook-class Intel Atom processor and 2GB RAM are combined with either 32GB or 64GB of flash storage and a screen that measures 8.9-inches with a resolution of just 1024x600. So what is this machine, a tablet or a keyboard-less touchscreen laptop? The price would certainly suggest the latter but demand better hardware.

The fact that such questions crop up is testament to the firm producing kit that doesn't really fill any particular role. So it won't come as too much of a surprise that it seems HP isn't too sure about the success of its Slate, saying that it was testing the waters in the US before shipping the device out to other markets.

There's nothing wrong with doing some market research in a single market. After all, worldwide launches are not cheap, even for HP, which has extensive channel partners all over the globe. The problem is that its non-committal stance suggests that it really isn't pinning much hope on the Slate 500 and frankly, given the $799 price tag, it will be a surprise if the HP device fends off the similarly priced Ipad.

Over the course of a week, HP has managed to show just why Apple has managed to do so well. Unlike HP, Apple follows a clear path in what it does. Even with an over-active rumour mill, mooting the idea of an Apple gadget running anything other than IOS would be absurd. Contrast this with HP, which recently proclaimed that WebOS tablets would tip up in 2011, yet chose to load Windows 7 on its first tablet device.

The Slate 500 was a gilt-edged opportunity for HP to showcase WebOS. Instead it seems that the firm decided to go with what it had in order to get the device on US store shelves in time for the holiday buying period. In doing so, it shunned the opportunity to elevate WebOS as a capable tablet operating system, a purpose Google has said its Android OS is currently not designed for.

So here we have something of a conundrum. The Palm Pre 2 is in many ways the direct opposite of Apple's Iphone 4. Going by the assumption that the Iphone 4 worked as intended, it is a case of high-end hardware tied to a frustrating operating system. With the Pre 2 it's a case of crippled hardware powering an operating system that has real potential of becoming great.

And when it comes to the Slate 500, it seems that a device that had promised so much had such a long gestation period that the firm simply forgot what the original aim of the device was. Instead it's a hodge-podge of ideas.

At the moment it seems that HP doesn't quite know what it has. It needs to stand back, take stock of its strengths in this area, chiefly WebOS, and design hardware around what is fundamentally a good operating system. µ



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