HP Partners Testing The Waters On WebOS Development

Hewlett Packard has big aspirations for WebOS, and it's trying to get channel partners excited, too. But while they're intrigued by WebOS, many long-time HP partners are still in wait-and-see mode, cognizant of the fact that HP faces a fierce headwind of mobile industry competition.

Yet, HP partners who have dipped their toes in the WebOS development waters have come away impressed with its user interface, multitasking capability and the ease with which they can build applications. WebOS' "touch to share" technology, which transfers URLs and files from one device to another by tapping them together, is seen as another potential differentiator for HP.

Synnex, whose CEO Kevin Murai has made mobility a top long-term strategic priority, is an early entrant to WebOS development and built a scheduling application for HP's Americas Partner Conference in March.

Rob Moyer, vice president of cloud computing programs at Synnex, said the distributor has long admired Palm's technology and feels that it will get even better under HP's watch. "We picked WebOS very early, and we did so mainly because of its technology attributes," he said in an interview. "We've always liked Palm and we wanted to be early adopters."

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Greenville, S.C.-based Synnex has a dedicated WebOS development team that is working on a "handful" of other apps, but Moyer declined to elaborate on the size of the team or on how many WebOS apps are forthcoming.

Bedrock Technology Partners, an HP partner based in San Mateo, Calif., is building customized apps for several customers who have expressed interest in the platform. CEO Dean Cappellazzo sees opportunities in building applications for his customers, particularly in areas such as field sales, manufacturing floors, healthcare, point-of-sale and other verticals.

"It’s important for HP to build a community of application developers to grow WebOS, and we've already begun making these investments," Cappellazzo said.

HP's TouchPad tablet, slated for launch this summer, could challenge the iPad in verticals such as healthcare and education, according to Moyer.

"There's definite a high level of interest from channel partners in these segments," he said. "Organizations are supporting iPad because of user demand, but there's definitely a sense that the market would like a really good alternative to the iPad. And I think they are more comfortable with HP's business model."

Next: HP's View Of The TouchPad Tablet Competition

Kristin Rogers, executive vice president of sales and marketing at PC Mall, a Torrance, Calif.-based direct marketer of products from HP, Apple, IBM, Lenovo and Microsoft, says HP has focused on the TouchPad tablet as more than just a point product, but an offering that channel partners can wrap into any number of vertically focused technology solutions.

"HP sees this as a significant opportunity for businesses, and I respect the fact that they're not just treating it as a cool product," said Rogers. "They're getting the channel to recognize that this is really a platform, much more than just a cool device."

Moyer acknowledges that Apple has a big head start in tablets but says it's still early days in the space. HP executives have expressed similar sentiments recently: At APC, Stephen DeWitt, senior vice president of HP's Americas Solution Partners Organization, blasted Apple for ignoring its channel partners. Todd Bradley, executive vice president of HP's Personal Systems Group, likened the looming tablet competition to a marathon as opposed to a sprint.

In addition to the WebOS feature set, HP sees its channel marketing and distribution strength as factors that can give it a leg up on Apple and other competitors. HP will market the TouchPad tablet as a device that fits neatly into the enterprise IT stack and functions as just another device on the network. PC Mall's Rogers says this is a shrewd approach that leverages one of HP's strengths.

"HP has a substantial and competent channel and that's an advantage," Rogers said. "HP has identified significant vertical market opportunity and they know how to build a channel that totally gets this opportunity."

Starting this summer, HP partners that sell WebOS solutions will receive new HP PartnerONE program benefits, including market development funds, volume programs, deal registration and technology practice development. In November, HP will introduce an Elite mobility program offering that will provide more substantial benefits for partners that meet more stringent mobility practice requirements.

"We are going to help our partners develop mobility practices that include services like app development, mobility virtualization and mobility management," Stephen DiFranco, vice president and general manager of HP's Americas Solution Partners Organization, said at APC.

Will these incentives be enough for HP to build a critical mass of WebOS developers? One problem is that HP's "early days" argument works both ways: Without enough apps, WebOS devices' appeal will remain limited to the same small segment of the market that thought the Palm Pre was the bee's knees. HP will probably need more partners to invest in WebOS development than it does right now for WebOS to generate significant momentum.

Next: HP's Challenges With WebOS

At least one development firm outside the HP partner ecosystem is content to remain on the WebOS sidelines for now.

Roundarch Labs, a Chicago-based user experience and technology design firm that does Flash and Silverlight development, hasn't invested significantly in WebOS development but does have the in-house skills necessary to do so. Dave Meeker, director of emerging technology and co-director at Roundarch Labs, says customer interest has yet to materialize.

"The biggest challenge that WebOS has right now is less related to the ability for agencies to build for the platform, and more so about our clients not asking for apps as Palm has been trailing so far behind iOS and android," said Meeker. "Like all software platforms, should WebOS start to gain market share and become relevant for our clients, we will most certainly be addressing their needs."

PC Mall is a large nationwide solution provider with a $100 million services business, but Rogers says the company has traditionally drawn the line at application development. The growing demand for Sharepoint development is causing PC Mall to reconsider this stance, but for the moment, WebOS development isn’t in the company's plans, she said.

How WebOS fares in the market will be a litmus test of sorts for HP's ability to exert influence in a new market by leveraging its channel. But while Palm wasn't able to achieve widespread success on its own, HP can bring to bear a much larger array of marketing weapons. Plus, CEO Leo Apotheker is very bullish on WebOS. With support like this, WebOS will have plenty of chances to make its mark.

"The HP team has aligned all major resources and strategies from Apotheker on down," said John Convery, executive vice president of vendor relations and marketing at Denali Advanced Integration, a Redmond, Wash.-based HP partner. "I certainly believe HP has a very unique approach here and a major competitive advantage."