Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman says that she and her team will need another few weeks to figure out what to do with the WebOS property it bought from Palm, after the company has pulled the plug on the TouchPad devices that used it.
WebOS is elegant software, it offers nice differentiation from mobile platform competitors Android and iOS, and it works. But with Microsoft now about to launch versions of Windows 8 for tablets and smartphones – and act very aggressively along the way – Whitman must decide whether HP is in a strong enough position to fight a bloody battle for a fraction of market share in the mobile operating system space.
It could try to license WebOS to other manufacturers, but those other manufacturers would be in the same position fighting for a few points of share in a competitive market.
But there is a solid alternative for HP that would leave WebOS in a strong position:
Put WebOS immediately under the control of HP’s Imaging and Printing unit – which is perhaps the company’s most successful business and arguably its most innovative. One of the strengths of the TouchPad was how simple WebOS made printing from the device itself; embedded in HP printers and imaging devices, WebOS could foster a powerful app ecosystem for its printing business, allow its channel partners to drive additional value into imaging and printing engagements and leave its I&P competitors struggling to keep up. It would be a powerful statement to HP rivals like Lexmark and even Canon, which have been working hard to build up their software intellectual property.
HP’s imaging and printing developers would be under far less pressure than the TouchPad team to turn WebOS into an immediate world-dominator (HP already has world-leading market share in printers.) And that unit also has strong insight into what works and what does not work in the enterprise – insight that Palm’s legacy team never appeared to demonstrate.
If HP decides it needs to build a WebOS-based mobile device after all, that could be fine – with a device that focuses on imaging and printing. An HP-branded PrintPad or ScanPad, focusing on print management or data capturing and collaboration, would have instant credibility in enterprise and could be a natural fit with HP scanners or printers.
WebOS has value. The question for Whitman is whether HP will use it to play to its strengths or play to its weaknesses.