Sometimes it's easier to compete by giving the world no option but to deal with you. By declaring its intention to use WebOS in its biggest selling and most well-known product line, Hewlett-Packard is doing just that.
Almost two hours into an event ostensibly scheduled to reveal HP's new smartphones along with the TouchPad tablet, HP Executive Vice President Todd Bradley dropped a bit of a stunner. HP has long said since acquiring Palm that it planned to use WebOS in a variety of devices, but until today few realized it intended to drive the software into its PC lineup.
"I'm excited to announce our plans to bring the WebOS to the device that has the biggest reach of all: the personal computer," Bradley said. And with that, many in the tech industry stopped wondering whether the TouchPad was really good enough to compete with the iPad and started wondering about how the world has been changed.
Already this year Microsoft has announced that Windows will run on ARM chips, which power the mobile world. And now HP is willing to risk alienating one of its oldest and closest partners by emphasizing its own software in hopes of creating a world in which software developers have no choice but to put WebOS near the top of their to-do lists.
If we were talking about just smartphones and tablets, it's not clear consumers and developers saw enough Wednesday to take such a step. Even after the event, vital details about the newest generation of WebOS smartphones and the company's first tablet are still glaringly scarce.
Perhaps most importantly, we have no idea how much the Veer, Pre 3, and TouchPad will cost. And besides that, shipping dates for the products were very vague, listed by the season rather than by the month and likely to arrive after next-generation products from Apple and from Google partners start to hit stores.
But HP has one very strong ace in the hole: the world's most popular PC brand. If HP does manage to ship PCs in volume with WebOS, those software developers will suddenly have a huge potential market to address with their applications. HP sold nearly 63 million PCs during 2010.
Of course, such a switch won't happen overnight and almost certainly won't involve numbers on that large a scale for quite some time, if ever. In a brief interview after HP's event, Phil McKinney, vice president and chief technology officer for HP's personal systems group, said it's likely that the first WebOS-based PCs will run WebOS atop Windows 7. He didn't rule out the prospect of WebOS-only PCs, but he had nothing in the way of even basic details to share.
All the hedging aside, the announcement sends a clear signal. As Fortune's Michael Copeland pointed out, HP doesn't think it needs to rely on Microsoft to sell PCs anymore.
Microsoft was polite in response to HP's event. "HP is a valued Microsoft partner, and we continue to work closely with them on many new products that bring great experiences to our mutual customers," the company said in a statement.
However, it was obvious after HP bought Palm for $1.2 billion that it was moving away from Microsoft's mobile operating system road map. It just wasn't as clear that HP was prepared to slight Microsoft when it came to both companies' flagship products as well, and no matter what combination HP chooses to use of WebOS and Windows 7 on its PCs, few would be surprised if it promoted its own software rather prominently.
And that, in turn, may encourage more and more people to think about alternative PCs running WebOS that aren't quite tablets but don't look like your father's desktop tower either. An easy example would be HP's Touchsmart PC, which one could easily see running WebOS as a kitchen-counter computer or in the lobby of a design firm.
If it all works out, HP will have given software developers millions of reasons to take it seriously. To be clear, this is not a long-term strategy: PC growth is anemic, smartphones are already outshipping PCs, and tablet growth is expected by most people in this industry to soar over the next few years.
HP will have to be competitive in smartphones and tablets to remain a force in the personal computing market, and its development teams in those categories need to pick up the pace to even stay abreast of Apple and Google. Still, it will be hard for competitors to match HP's potential reach across the world's computing markets if WebOS tablets, smartphones, and PCs prove popular.
At some point there will no longer be enough software development energy to support six different mobile operating systems. If Nokia really does throw in the towel later this week and embrace Windows Phone 7, we'll be down to five.
WebOS has been an underdog in this fight for quite some time. But developers understand volume, and WebOS PCs could represent quite a lot of that.