HP wants back into the smartphone market it abandoned

HP webOS

It’s deja vu all over again. After a whole lot of dithering on its commitment to the smartphone market, Hewlett-Packard is getting back into the game. CEO Meg Whitman told Fox Business News that the company is “working on” a smartphone, something it can’t afford to ignore.

“We have to ultimately offer a smartphone because in many countries of the world that would be your first computing device,” Whitman said. “We are a computing company.”

This is a bit of a no-brainer decision for HP, which has been a leader for years in computer sales. But its track record in mobile devices has been a lot more confusing. The company was an also-ran in smartphones when the iPhone launched in 2007.  It then acquired Palm for $1.2 billion in 2010 in a bid to get relevant again. But HP was slow in rolling out devices based on Palm’s WebOS and ultimately threw in the towel on its webOS hardware business last year under CEO Leo Apotheker, just months after launching its first webOS-based tablet. HP announced it would open source webOS and has been downsizing the Palm unit.

HP webOSNow, Whitman is reversing course again, acknowledging what everyone else already knows: it’s becoming a post-PC world and HP can’t afford not to compete there. “We did take a detour into smartphones, and we’ve got to get it right this time,” she said.

The news comes after HP reportedly launched a new mobility division last month with Nokia’s Alberto Torres to lead it. And it follows another weak quarter for HP, which reflects some of the big struggles that PC makers have had in adapting to the realities of smartphones and tablets.

So what will HP’s smartphone run? Apparently not RIM’s BlackBerry platform. Whitman told Fox Business News that HP wasn’t considering considering buying any part or all of RIM. With its investment in webOS waning and a smaller developer community behind it, it’s unlikely that HP will stake a big bet on that platform again. A more natural choice would be to reconnect with Microsoft and use Windows Phone 8 for future smartphones. That would make sense considering HP last month announced the Envy X2 tablet-laptop hybrid device running on Windows 8. But we’ll have to see if HP follows through.

The bigger question is how fast and how well can HP execute. The company has not been timely in the past on getting out mobile products and now with the back and forth on its smartphone strategy, it’s lost even more time. Smartphones have passed the 50 percent penetration rate in the U.S. and the heady growth of the past several years is now slowing. Android and iOS are firmly entrenched at the top of the market and Nokia and Samsung are likely to be the biggest manufacturers on Windows Phone 8.

The long and short of this saga is, HP can say the right things about getting back into the smartphone market but it’s a lot easier said than done.

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