Interview: New WebOS Leader DeWitt On TouchPad, Microsoft, Licensing Deals

Any time the leader of one of the five organizations hoping to define the future of mobile computing steps aside, there will be the immediate murmurs about whether or not that organization is heading in the right direction. As you might imagine new WebOS head Stephen DeWitt, named yesterday to oversee HP’s efforts trying to catch market leaders like Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and Google (NSDQ: GOOG), doesn’t think that’s the case at all: it’s simply time for HP (NYSE: HPQ) to “go big.”

In an interview with mocoNews Tuesday, DeWitt shared some thoughts on the future of WebOS, former Palm leader Jon Rubinstein, HP’s complicated relationship with Microsoft, and the recent TouchPad launch. Here’s what he had to say:

On “Why now?”–DeWitt, who has been with HP since 2008 overseeing the Americas region of its PC group, said that HP is starting the process of planning its budgets and resource priorities for its 2012 fiscal year and wanted to make sure any leadership changes were completed before that process really got cranking.

But he also said that for most of the first year that Palm was under HP’s wing, it was focused on products like the Veer, Pre 3, and now TouchPad. Along the way other decisions needed to be made about the boring integration stuff like sales and operations, and those are now being put into place with the naming of several other new leaders within what’s being called the webOS Global Business Unit.

“(Palm) had a certain amount on their plate when we acquired them. As soon as we acquired them that plate got a lot bigger,” DeWitt said. The unit now has “well over” 1,000 people and HP will continue to hire.

On whether the TouchPad launch prompted changes: “It’s absurd,” DeWitt said after being told that some people are wondering whether or not the lukewarm debut of the TouchPad (shrugged off by respected gadget reviewers) led to yesterday’s reorganization. “These moves have nothing to do with the launch.”

However, HP did launch the TouchPad a little earlier than it had previously planned, DeWitt said. The company’s retail partners have been planning to launch their own marketing efforts on July 17th, timed to the start of the back-to-school shopping season. That’s still the plan, and it sounds like the tablet-oriented redesign at the Best Buy in Emeryville, CA that we highlighted a few weeks ago is rolling out across the country. But “we had the opportunity to get the product out slightly earlier and we did that,” DeWitt said, emphasizing that HP was very far along in the quality-assurance process for the TouchPad despite the presence of bugs that will require a software update set to arrive over the next few weeks.

On Rubinstein’s new role: “It would be absurd to think that Ruby isn’t going to have influence on WebOS,” DeWitt said. “We’ve all worked with amazing engineering talents before, and he’s near the top of that food chain. We will benefit tremendously from his insight across our PSG portfolio.”

On licensing versus own-and-control: The short-term priority for DeWitt is to sell more WebOS products. That includes both existing product lines like smartphones and tablets as well as bringing WebOS to other devices, as HP has long promised since closing the deal to acquire Palm.

But it’s clear that HP is also thinking about licensing WebOS, coming from no less an authority than CEO Leo Apotheker. DeWitt danced around exactly who might be thinking about licensing the software but confirmed that talks were ongoing that involve any number of partners in both the hardware and software communities, which could suggest that WebOS could also play a greater role in some software packages in addition to phones or tablets produced by other hardware makers.

On Microsoft: One place HP has been very clear about bringing WebOS is the PC, which of course is the bread and butter of HP’s oldest and best partner, Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT). DeWitt was unwilling to share an updated time frame for installing this WebOS layer atop Windows PCs beyond sometime next year, which is what HP has been saying for months.

But what to make of this relationship with Microsoft now that WebOS is coming to PCs, WebOS is competing against Windows Phone 7 (and maybe Windows 8 next year) on store shelves, and HP is out seeking licensing deals with handset makers who have also been courted by Microsoft?

“This is a changing time, and I don’t look at it so much as our OS versus their OS. It’s the relationship that we have with the user of connected devices who is clearly going to have relationships with other providers as well,” he said. While HP and Microsoft remain friends, he claimed, we’re clearly entering a new era of computing in which the operating models that defined the PC generation may not necessarily apply.

On a mobile future: It’s clear that HP is behind the times when it comes to what Apple CEO Steve Jobs calls the “post-PC era,” arguably launched by the debut of the iPhone in 2007. But DeWitt believes there is still enough growth in the overall industry to support multiple players even when one or two companies may own a majority of the market.

“By the end of this decade you’re going to have two-thirds of the world’s population online, connected through a smartphone or tablet or PC. By 2020, there is going to be somewhere in the ballpark of 25 billion devices connected to the network, and to assume the game is over in 2012 is nothing short of obnoxious.”