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Summary:

It’s been about three months since HP finalized its $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm and there’s obviously some digesting and transitioning going on. But the growing question is: when are we going to see some new webOS handset hardware from HP and Palm?

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It’s been about three months since HP finalized its $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm, and there’s obviously some digesting and transitioning going on.

But the growing question is: When are we going to see some new webOS handset hardware from HP and Palm?

HP executives originally talked about doubling down on webOS and pushing hard on a variety of devices that can run the operating system. We then heard some waffling back and forth from ousted HP CEO Mark Hurd on the company’s commitment to webOS smartphones. Most recently, Rahul Sood, CTO of HP’s gaming business pleaded for patience in a blog post, saying new webOS devices with new form factors are on the way “over the next 12 months.”

But the fact is, we haven’t seen any new hardware since the beginning of the year; we’re now closing in on the holidays with nothing in sight; and the market is racing ahead with a slew of competing devices. Surely Palm had something in the works before the merger, no? What’s taking so long?

The most concrete statement recently on hardware from HP has been about a webOS tablet coming out in early 2011 and webOS working its way into printers. However, aside from Sood’s remarks, there’s little insight into how seriously HP plans to take its webOS smartphone business.

HP runs the risk of making webOS irrelevant if it doesn’t continue to build new smartphone hardware and fast. To compete in the smartphone market, you need to build a developer community and an app market around your platform, and that needs to start with smartphones. Without that, it’s going to be hard to build success for any other webOS device, be it a slate, printer or something else.

Palm, if you recall, released the Pre in June of last year to good reviews but modest sales. It followed up with the simpler Pixi in November. A Pre Plus and the Pixi Plus, two updates with some better internal specs, rolled out in January. For the most part, that’s been it, and to be honest, the Plus versions were upgrades, not noticeably new hardware. It’s now been about 16 months since the first launch of the flagship Palm Pre.

This might have worked in the early days of smartphones, but this is a hyper-competitive market where Apple, RIM and Google are jockeying for position armed with fresh devices, including the iPhone 4 and the BlackBerry Torch. Google’s Android in particular is being packed into one superphone after another at an incredible pace. Samsung is in the process of releasing four Android handsets on all four major carriers. HTC and Motorola have been churning out high-end Android devices almost monthly. This isn’t to mention Microsoft’s coming push with Windows Phone 7.

This market is moving so fast that webOS can’t rely on a handful of aging smartphones; it needs to shine on new devices. Yes, there’s a webOS 2.0 update coming soon, but developers are already cooling to the charms of webOS, despite its great features. Appcelerator’s June developer survey has found that interest in webOS (13 percent) still trails (PDF) far behind Apple (90 percent) and Android (81 percent) and every other platform, including Windows Phone 7 and Symbian.

If you can’t get people to buy the handsets, no one’s going to write for the platform. Right now, Palm’s market share is just under 5 percent, according to comScore It’s a numbers game, and Palm/HP doesn’t seem to be in it.

Now, HP and Palm could still roll out something really visionary for next year. I’m not saying the handset business is doomed. And to be honest, between the CEO turmoil and the integration work, there’s a lot on HP’s plate. It hasn’t helped that there’s been an exodus of key executives, including Peter Skilling, the designer of the Palm Pre.

But they still have some good executive talent including Palm’s CEO Jon Rubinstein. HP’s head of the Personal Systems Group Todd Bradley was also the former CEO of Palm and certainly knows his way around handsets. Palm should be able to put out something substantial in a timely manner.

Palm, if you recall, was a leader in the smart phone space before the iPhone came along. But lackluster and slow updates, both hardware and software-wise, left the company trailing the market even before the iPhone launched. The hope was that webOS represented a new turning point for Palm. But if it doesn’t ramp up quickly, Palm, even with the resources of HP, could continue the same slide it has been on for half a decade.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user mbiebusch

  1. Another great article, Ryan, but I think you too quickly gloss over the potential for webOS to be in non-smartphone devices. Not just tablets and printers, but monitoring devices and specific market-vertical devices.

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  2. Runs the risk of making PalmOS irrelevant? About the same risk as that of the sun coming up yesterday.

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  3. @brian. I agree, webOS could have a future in non-smartphone devices. But I think you build momentum first with smartphones then branch out. I could be wrong and we’ll see. I’m hoping HP get its act together. WebOS is good enough to compete on its merits.
    @paul. Touche’

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  4. HP/Palm is in a much better position than Microsoft is.

    Palm got a multitouch webOS device out in 2009. HP will have a webOS slate on the market in early 2011.

    Now, compare that to Microsoft.

    As we speak, Microsoft has only Windows Mobile on the market. It is based on Windows CE which was last updated in 2004. That is almost 7 years ago. Microsoft has not updated its core OS for almost 7 years (with just superficial lipstick updates).

    When Windows Phone 7 comes out, it will be immature and unfinished. Note how webOS can copy/paste and has the best multitasking in the industry. Windows Phone 7 can do neither.

    Microsoft has no competitive slate device either on the market or on the horizon.

    So you see, HP/Palm and webOS are in a much more competitive position than Microsoft with Windows Phone 7.

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    1. I wish I could find this comparison comforting but I can’t for 2 reasons:

      1) The difference between Microsoft and Palm is that MS has the cash reserves to prop up their mobile division no matter how poorly it performs, whereas Palm had to sell themselves because they could not sustain that same strategy.

      2) Having used WebOS since launch day, I know how elegant and powerful the operating system is. Even with iOS 4, Palm has Apple beat in terms of multitasking, and despite the rapid pace of Android updates and new hardware releases, it still can’t compete with the UI/UX polish of WebOS. This is the league that WebOS is in – the big leagues – and yet with the lagging pace of hardware iteration, Palm is left to eke out favorable comparisons to Microsoft.

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  5. One reason we are not seeing new WebOS phones is that HP must be sitting on a huge inventory of unsold Pre and Pixie phones. These phones have not been popular–lost is the space between Apple and Android–and their inventory is aging as it sits idle in some anonymous warehouse.

    Without strong leadership, which HP is lacking now, they will have to start fresh if and when they sell down their old inventory. And starting fresh without a strong leader in the front office is a task with poor prospects for success.

    HP had better start running ads for a new CEO or promote one of their own to the job. Foundering in a fast moving industry is a recipe for disaster.

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    1. They should just give one to every employee, like Google gave Nexus One to its employees.

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      1. Good idea, and one to each wife.

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  6. One reason we are not seeing new WebOS phones is that HP must be sitting on a huge inventory of unsold Pre and Pixie phones. These phones have not been popular–lost in the space between Apple and Android–and their inventory is aging as it sits idle in some anonymous warehouse.

    Without strong leadership, which HP is lacking now, they will have to start fresh if and when they sell down their old inventory. And starting fresh without a strong leader in the front office is a task with poor prospects for success.

    HP had better start running ads for a new CEO or promote one of their own to the job. Foundering in a fast moving industry is a recipe for disaster.

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  7. Glad someone is asking this question.

    One huge factor is that the most loyal Palm market is going to come from original Pre buyers who are personally invested in WebOS and don’t need to be sold on it. The next WebOS device needs to be out and looking strong to lock in the re-up from current WebOS users. The 2 years won’t be up until June ’11, but Sprint subscribers get discount privileges variously at 12, 18 and 22 months, so time is slipping by. These folks have put up with questionnable hardware and minimal developer support (and social ostracism?!) all for the love of a great OS – if HPalm loses tem, it’s given up the ghost.

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  8. At last week’s printer event, HP showed the tablet-equipped printers and told me they were running Android 2.1 — not WebOS. That really surprised me.

    HP further stated it was working on unifying the UIs within its four lines of printers (by market segment), which makes me wonder whether WebOS has a place there.

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  9. While there are *tons* of talented execuitives and managers at HP, but I am sure not having a CEO in place is putting a damper on any and all strategic initiatives coming from them and from within the company right now.

    If Palm was still acting as an independent concern, that would be one thing, but they answer to HP management, and they are clearly in a holding pattern at best, and a directionless ship at worst.

    It’s like the saying goes, “Where there is no vision, people perish.” The head of a business unit / product team my have it, but if there’s no support or direction from above them, it’s for potentially all for naught.

    HP needs to find iteslf. Fast.

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  10. [...] time’s a-wasting–as GigaOm’s Ryan Kim points out, the current crop of WebOS handsets are looking a tad aged.  I’m still a major fan of [...]

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