WebOS Chief DeWitt Says HP Can Impact 'Universe Of Devices'

Stephen DeWitt, the recently appointed head of HPs' new WebOS business unit, has heard all about how Apple has an insurmountable lead in the tablet space, and how HP will never be able to attract widespread interest from mobile application developers. And in some cases, DeWitt understands why critics would reach such conclusions.

"I know it's trendy for people to say WebOS doesn't have all the apps. We don't have an umpteen-year history of courting the developer community -- we just don’t," DeWitt told CRN in a recent interview.

But in spite of the doomsayers, DeWitt continues to make the case that WebOS and the TouchPad tablet are products that are tailor-made for HP's channel partners -- and for developers. DeWitt notes that HP's WebOS App Catalog currently has around 500 native TouchPad applications, more than the iPad had at launch. And when HP gets WebOS running on Windows PCs, home appliances, printers and a range of other devices, the developer opportunity will really explode, according to DeWitt.

"No one has ever had a playground of hundreds of millions of disparate devices to build applications on top. It's one thing to have a smartphone, but what about applications that run on all sorts of different things that create experiences that we haven't even envisioned yet?" DeWitt said. "What's most important for HP is to inspire the innovation we know is possible across the universe of devices that we can impact."

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It's a lofty vision, and one that will take years to develop, particularly since HP executives have characterized the company's mobile strategy as more like a marathon than a sprint. HP CEO Leo Apotheker has raised the possibility of licensing WebOS to third parties, including mobile device makers, which would expand the target for developers and allow DeWitt's vision to take shape more quickly.

At the moment, though, HP partners are just starting to dip their toes into the WebOS waters, and DeWitt says HP is willing to be patient while partners figure out where mobility fits into their businesses.

"The VAR community has a massive opportunity in front of it, but the value proposition has to be matched to it, and that evolution has to take place," DeWitt said. "This isn’t a binary on off switch, or a situation where if partners don't do it right away, they'll be dead."

However, some partner opportunities around TouchPad are within the reach of the HP channel today. This is particularly true of virtualization solution providers, which are deploying tablets as endpoints in virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) projects.

Next: HP VARs Making Money With TouchPad Today

Paul Shiff, vice president at Hub Technical Services, a South Easton, Mass.-based solution provider with a heavy data center focus, has used the iPad in VDI work but says TouchPad is more aligned with the needs of his business customers.

"The TouchPad is absolutely built the right way for the enterprise," Shiff said. "HP took into account important features such as manageability and multitasking, and TouchPad is also a fit for private cloud environments."

Daniel Rodriguez, vice president of technology services at United Data Technologies (UDT), a Miami-based HP partner that focuses on the educational market, says WebOS provides a distribution layer for policy and application management that's not included in competing tablets. "Our biggest challenge is that iPad and Android tablets aren't built to be enterprise-managed," he said.

UDT is overseeing the development of a WebOS-based platform that delivers instructional technology to students using the TouchPad, and Rodriguez says student response systems and classroom control applications are especially well-suited for TouchPads. "We can capture student achievement data during the lesson plan in real time, determine if students are getting it and map their performance to state standards," he said.

Despite these early TouchPad inroads, HP faces a tough climb in getting mobile developers on board with WebOS, and so it's casting a wide net. In addition to mobile developers that build games and enterprise applications, HP is also encouraging channel partners to build WebOS development practices. Hub Technical Services and UDT are both looking at building WebOS development expertise, but they're not actually building apps today.

To grease the skids further, HP earlier this month launched a series of road shows that include face-to-face partner training on how to position the TouchPad against the competition. HP is providing health-care and education ISVs with WebOS 3.0 SDK engineering help, with a view to helping these partners port their existing applications and further boosting the size of the WebOS App Catalog.

While application development is new to many partners, DeWitt says mobility is a logical next step for VARs that are looking to branch out into new technology areas and future proof their businesses.

"If you're a VAR, you’re making decisions with your own cash about where to invest to capitalize on growth over the next several years," DeWitt said. "The value has been beaten down so low in some areas [of the channel] that you have to look for areas to create defendable turf and create value."