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Betting Long on Palm, HP, and WebOS

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There is no company capable of releasing a tablet computer device that can compete head on with Apple Inc.’s iPad. Apple’s core technology (touchscreen, responsive UI), deals with the entertainment industry (Record Labels, Pandora, Netflix, and their ilk), and ability to skip the early adopter step of technology transfer is, simple put, insurmountable.

Apple spent years, possibly decades, doing the research and development necessary to make this happen, and now they’re reaping the benefits. Any tablet maker that wants to gain a foothold in this new market will need to play a long game, and right now my money is on HP and the acquired Palm/WebOS.

Whither Android?

Android’s an important piece of technology, but that’s still all it is. Google’s investing resources in Android because it gives them influence over anyone who isn’t Apple. On the flip side, companies who adopt Android right now do so because they don’t want to invest in their own R&D. Both are valid business strategies, but neither is a recipe for widespread adoption of a new technology.

Additionally, until there’s a widely adopted hardware platform for touch devices (ala. the 1980s IBM PC BIOS), and until the wireless networking ecosystem more resembles the landline based internet of the mid-to-late 90s, Android remains an open-source platform locked inside a closed world.

It’s not in the immediate interest of anyone using Android to make the above happen, which means Android remains the platform for Verizon’s Pepsi (to Apple’s Coke) smart-phones, and half-backed tablets from companies who are hoping to exploit a market rather than nurture one.

Why WebOS

Looking at WebOS, it’d be easy to come to similar conclusions about half-baked tablets, and right now these’s no reason for that mythical average consumer to choose a TouchPad over an iPad.

The difference is that HP and Jon Rubenstein seem to know that, and more importantly are acknowledging it. If you listen to press clips from companies like Samsung and RIM, it’s all about how confident they are of their platform’s success vs. iOS. That’s top-level-executive talk for we don’t have another plan, this has to work.

HP is the only company I see talking openly and honestly (or as openly and honestly as things get in this business) about the current shortcomings of WebOS, and how they’re not trying to take on Apple.

Right now HP is in the early stage of technology transfer with WebOS. They’re building support among early adopters and laying the groundwork for future success. The direction of their APIs and SDKs are showing movement towards a place where they’ll be able to address the performance issues that Apple spent years working out in secret. Performance aside, their UI metaphors are showing more innovation than Apple’s.

HP is giving all signs that WebOS is long term investment for the health and evolution of their company. That, more than anything else, is a reason to pay attention and why you should give the platform a look.

Update: Thursday; August 18, 2011: Or HP could pull out after 2 months of dismal TouchPad sales. Disappointed but, in retrospect, not surprised.

Originally published July 5, 2011