Apple and Google like to boast about the size of their respective app stores as a measure of their popularity among developers, and by extension, customers. Hewlett-Packard is about to make a big push into that same market and does not have the ability to compete in that area. So rather than the size of its app store, HP is banking on the size and reach of the company to convince developers to climb aboard their WebOS ship.
When the HP TouchPad goes on sale Friday, the company says its first tablet will have between 300 and 400 native tablet applications ready to go. That includes applications from major recognizable names like Kindle and Facebook, and popular mobile apps like Angry Birds and Epicurious. Plus there will be the 6,200 apps for WebOS phones, 80 percent of which should work on the TouchPad right away, according to HP.
For perspective, Apple can boast 425,000 iOS apps and 100,000 for the iPad alone right now. Android apps number more than 200,000 though apps optimized for Honeycomb tablets are in the "low hundreds."
HP has insisted it's still early in the game in terms of the maturity of the tablet market, and that may be true--tablet sales are on the rise and things could look a lot different in the next 12 months. But the company is starting from behind. Will HP be able to persuade them to take a look at a third possible platform?
A survey of more than 2,700 developers by IDC and Appcelerator in April showed that interest in developing for WebOS tablets and phones is lagging far behind iOS and Android. It's also behind Windows Phone 7, BlackBerry phones and the PlayBook. A mere 17 percent of those surveyed described themselves as "very interested" in making apps for a WebOS tablet. That's compared to 86 percent "very interested" in making iPad apps, and 71 percent interested in making Android tablet apps.
The guy in charge of recruiting developers and convincing them that HP's platform is viable is Richard Kerris. He came into the job earlier this year with a remarkably humble and realistic outlook on the mobile app landscape, and he's talked about how HP wasn't interested in playing the numbers game. Kerris said in an interview earlier this week that "The general feedback from developers is there's an awareness of how much HP is behind this and the impact we're going to have in the marketplace and our expanding footprint."
So the pitch to potential WebOS developers is not like that of category leader Apple, which is: look at all the eyeballs looking at your apps we can provide, and here's how much money we've paid developers over the three years since the App Store opened ($2.5 billion). HP's pitch is: trust the size of the reach of this company and look where we're going.
HP is trying to tempt developers with other big numbers: like how it's the world's largest technology company by volume, and how if all goes according to plan, WebOS will be accessible on 100 million devices.
HP CEO Leo Apotheker has said that sometime next year in addition to smartphones and tablets he wants to see WebOS added to all of the Windows PCs and some Web-connected printers that HP sells too. HP sold 60 million PCs last year, and is also the largest maker of printers in the world. Apotheker hasn't offered many specifics on how that will happen, but he wants HP to have a unifying software platform across its hardware that will distinguish HP computers from other Windows machines, and printers that stand out from the hundreds of identical-looking ones you see at Best Buy.
That's a broader vision than Apple and Google have for iOS and Android, and Kerris said the WebOS people at HP "don't see ourselves in the same competitive stance as those two companies."
There are more than 50,000 registered WebOS developers right now, according to Kerris. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a significant number who focus chiefly on WebOS. While many say they love WebOS for its ease of development, frustration with the software has stemmed from the grindingly slow pace of updates it received after it was introduced in 2009. Even big-name app makers, like Evernote, professed to love WebOS, but said they largely abandoned the platform when it "stagnated." That was due to Palm's lack of resources, and is the reason someone like HP had to step in to buy Palm.
HP has the resources to back up its decently well-reviewed software. Along with its weight in the technology world, and its vision for where it wants to go, the company might be able to attract more developers who have some extra time on their hands and are looking to expand beyond the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices.
But whether they'll make as much money as they can developing for, say, iOS is a different story.