Seen by many as a third-place also-ran, HP is upping the ante in the battle of mobile operating systems. At a high-profile event in San Francisco, the Silicon Valley giant on Wednesday presented a new, far-reaching strategy for the webOS software it acquired when it took over the faltering mobile pioneer Palm last year. In addition to unveiling two new mobile phones and a multimedia tablet, HP announced that webOS will be built into the company’s printers and even PCs. “Our goal is to extend the webOS experience across the broadest range of devices,” said Todd Bradley, HP’s Executive Vice President of the Personal Systems Group. “What you see today is HP taking a new approach to the entire ecosystem of connectivity.”
As a first step, the company will release two smartphones – the HP Veer and the Pre3 – in the spring and early summer. Both models have slide-out keyboards, but the Veer is tiny, roughly the size of a credit card and featuring a 2.57-inch touch screen, while the Pre3 caters to smartphone fans who prefer a a bigger screen. With a resolution of 800×400 pixels on a 3.58-inch screen, the Pre3 stays behind Apple’s iPhone 4 “Retina Display” but is on par with many Andoid competitors. Both phones offer Bluetooth and Wi-Fi b/g/n connectivity. HP stayed mum on prices and did not announce mobile carriers either.
The new star of the family, however, is HP’s iPad rival, the “TouchPad” tablet, to be released at an unspecified date in the summer, for an equally unspecified price. Measuring 7.48 inches x 9.53 inches (19 cm x 24.2 cm), the TouchPad is .54 inches (1.4 cm) thick and weighs 1.6 pounds (740 grams). The 9.7-inch touchscreen has a resolution of 1024×768 pixels – the same as the iPad but staying below Motorola’s new Xoom tablet, which offers 1280×800 pixels on a 10.1-inch display. Powered by a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor at 1.2 Ghz, the TouchPad is supposed to handle office chores and web surfing equally well as video streaming, 3D gaming and video telephony with the built-in, front-facing 1.3 megapixel web cam. Despite the powerful processor and multitasking capabilities, the battery is expected to last for a full day, according to HP.
Storage will be 16 or 32 gigabytes, and the TouchPad offers WiFi and Bluetooth, but there will be no models with cell-phone connectivity. Still, the new HP tablet will be able to make phone calls and send or receive text messages when a webOS smartphone is near – it can share the cell phone’s mobile connection via Bluetooth. More impressively, the two devices can also exchange information in a very simple way: it’s enough to hold the phone close to the tablet to transfer e-mails, contacts and other data. The trick is an induction technology HP has dubbed “Touchstone,” which also serves as a way to wirelessly charge the battery. With Touchstone, it’s enough to place the phone or TouchPad on a special charger (which is sold separately) – no cables needed.
Among the more than 50 new features in webOS are notifications that show up in an unobtrusive fashion in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, as well as a virtual keyboard that comes in several different sizes. Also, social networks are integrated in many ways into the operating system, so that Facebook photos, for example, show up in the TouchPad’s photo app alongside images that are stored on the device itself.
Apps developed for Palm phones will need to be modified to make use of the larger TouchPad screen, but an HP representative said that the company expects the majority of the apps to easily make that transition. With some 6,000 apps currently available, webOS badly trails both Apple and Android. Apple claims more than 350,000 apps, of which 60,000 are optimized for the iPad, while there are more than 100,000 apps available for Google’s Android platform on various devices.
Clearly needing to catch up, HP is trying to lure Apple partners that are unhappy with the market leader’s dictating them very specific conditions for what their apps can or cannot do. Amazon and publishing giant Time Inc. served as showcases in San Francisco. “Sports Illustrated” will be one of several Time publications available as interactive magazine. “HP understands our business,” said Time’s Chief Digital Officer, Randall Rothenberg, adding that the TouchPad maker will allow publishers to access subscriber data – which Apple, so far, has been unwilling to do. Amazon, meanwhile, will be offering Kindle books on webOS devices, fully integrating its “Whispersync” technology, HP said.
The company also hopes to make webOS more attractive for developers by bringing it to printers and PCs, according to Todd Bradley. “Do the math”, he said. Counting printers and PCs, “you’ll easily exceed 100 million devices with webOS.” He did not go into specifics about how and when HP would make webOS available on these devices, merely adding, “I think it’s fair to say that that’s the start of something pretty big.”