HP Partners Impressed By Apotheker's Heavy Lifting On WebOS

WebOS devices have been slow to market and HP still doesn't have a horse in the tablet race. But partners believe that within HP, CEO Leo Apotheker has been working feverishly to get the IT giant's product groups on board with his vision for WebOS.

Earlier this week at the D9 conference, HP CEO Leo Apotheker said he regrets not being able to bring WebOS to market sooner and suggested that corporate headwinds may have slowed its progress to market. "I have tried to shelter WebOS from the bureaucracy,’ Apotheker said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg.

Apotheker didn't elaborate on this enigmatic comment, and so HP partners and industry analysts have been trying to figure out what the heck he meant. Obviously, a $130 billion company is going to have its fair share of bureaucracy. As was the case with Microsoft's Danger acquisition, this can scuttle promising technology before it can crystallize into viable products. On the other hand, it's highly unusual to hear a CEO publicly cite internal red tape as the cause of slow product development.

While it's risky to read too much into a single comment from a CEO, HP partners think Apotheker was simply acknowledging the massive amount of internal corporate heavy lifting he's had to do with WebOS to get buy-in from HP's product groups.

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"This is a pretty significant cultural shift for HP," Kristin Rogers, executive vice president of sales and marketing at PC Mall, a Torrance, Calif.-based direct marketer of products from HP and many other mobile device makers.

"This isn't about the TouchPad tablet or WebOS phones, it’s about developing an operating system, platform and standards," said Rogers. "HP believes that with WebOS, it's developing something that enterprise IT will want to standardize on instead of Apple and Android."

But selling a vision involves more than just heavy lifting; there's a great deal of finesse required, too. It's likely that some product groups weren't thrilled with HP's $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm last April because they couldn't see where the struggling mobile device maker would fit. Apotheker was reportedly enamored of WebOS before he joined HP, and partners believe he had to do a fair bit of coaxing to get the rest of the company feeling the same way.

"Launching something new takes different thinking, management and financial oversight," said Steve Tepedino, president of Melillo Consulting, a Somerset, N.J.-based solution provider. "Oftentimes the core businesses could have a negative impact on the 'new thing' because it's different, so there needs to be some real separation to insure the core doesn't destroy the new idea."

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HP last month launched Veer, its first WebOS device, but the company has been vague about when the Pre3 and TouchPad tablet will hit store shelves. Apotheker said at D9 that he's not interested in rushing the TouchPad to market; he'd rather get it right and be late than deal with the type of fallout RIM has been hit with in the wake of the PlayBook launch.

It's a view that makes sense to John Convery, executive vice president of vendor relations and marketing at Denali Advanced Integration, a Redmond, Wash.-based HP partner. "HP is a very large company and there are lots of moving parts around Web OS -- the brightest and the best across all business units. And because HP is so big, things take longer to develop and change," said Convery.

Deron Kershaw, notebook analyst at Gap Intelligence, a San Diego-based research firm that follows HP, also believes that Apotheker's ambitious goal of turning WebOS into an ecosystem, and the complexity of the work this involves, has slowed WebOS' development.

"By committing to put WebOS on laptops, desktops, tablets, phones, and printers, HP now has to worry about it being compatible with a wide variety of form factors, in addition to different configurations," Kershaw said. "The pressure to get it perfect and the demand to test on a variety of devices slows down development time."

For Apotheker, who has presided over two straight rocky fiscal quarters and in the midst of reorganizing and revamping its Technology Services business, WebOS is a chance to show naysayers that he's able to execute and lead the company into new markets.

If WebOS succeeds in quickly capturing the number three position in the mobile space behind Apple and Android, the race will then turn into a marathon as opposed to the sprint it has been thus far, Apotheker said at D9. If that scenario plays out, HP is confident that its marketing and channel distribution muscle will carry WebOS to an even stronger market position.