Business Hardware

How HP Could Create the WebOS PC

As reporters were leaving Hewlett-Packard's recent WebOS extravaganza, the company threw in a mention that the company planned to bring its mobile WebOS, acquired from Palm last year, into its desktop PC line. No details, no timeline -- just more vague teasing last week at the Mobile World Congress. HP's goal is clearly to copy Apple's strategy of owning the platform across a whole product ecosystem, with WebOS in smartphones, a tablet soon, printers later, and PCs at some point.

But HP is also the leader in sales of Windows PCs, which is a much, much bigger part of its business than WebOS (at least for the foreseeable future). And HP's foray into touch-enabled PCs over the last 18 months have not gone very far, given Windows' lack of support in its core OS for touch gestures. So how would grafting WebOS onto Windows PCs actually succeed?

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There are two models HP can look at to get to a hybrid WebOS-Windows environment. One is the virtual-machine model; the other is the integrated-OS model. I'm focusing on hybrid rather than WebOS-only PCs because I can't imagine HP giving up its Windows PC business, any more than Apple is giving up its Mac OS X business as iOS soars.

The integrated-OS option
The integrated-OS model is nearly impossible for HP to execute, as it doesn't own Windows. Even if HP were to develop its own core DLLs and COM objects to add WebOS's gestures and alerting capabilities and make them as accessible as native Windows facilities, Microsoft could break them at any time with a Windows update. And Windows 8, which Microsoft says will support tablets in its 2012 or 2013 release, will certainly orphan any HP core additions to Windows.

Plus, even if HP were to add its own WebOS facilities into Windows for the PCs it ships, developers are unlikely to take advantage of them, as that would mean having HP-specific versions of their Windows software. Given that developers have not embraced HP's touch extensions to Windows for use in its touchscreen PCs, it's hard to believe they would embrace WebOS extensions, either.

In case you're wondering, the developers who've embraced HP's touch extensions are creating kiosk-style apps such as for hotel check-in. Users don't buy these apps individually, but as part of integrated systems of PCs and preinstalled hardware -- appliances, essentially -- sold in large volumes to a small number of retailers, hoteliers, and the like. It's a very different business model than for the PCs used by consumers and enterprises.

As a contrast, consider Apple's adoption of this integrated-OS approach. It can do so because it owns both Mac OS X and iOS. But even Apple is slowly integrating the two OSes, in terms of how it adapts OS and hardware capabilities from Mac OS X to iOS and from iOS to Mac OS X. The fact that Apple is doing it slowly reflects business realities (not undercutting the Mac OS X market and developer ecosystem) and technical realities (not throwing out the software, tools, and services that are widely deployed and depended on today by users, IT, and developers alike).

But as its Mac OS X Lion plans show, it is methodically moving in that direction. Apple and its developers are also greatly helped by the fact that Mac OS X and iOS share a core OS layer, so they're more branches on the same tree than different species, which is the case for WebOS and Windows.

The virtual-machine model
The more likely way to have hybrid WedOS/Windows PCs is by using virtualization. This technology works extremely well, as any Mac user who runs Windows via Parallels Desktop or EMC VMware Fusion can attest. But it's no slam dunk.

Windows is able to run virtualization software to host other OSes as guests. But if WebOS were a guest OS on Windows, there's the issue of how to deal with WebOS's very different UI model and the type of interapplication facilities that WebOS uses, for example, with alerting and communication integration. Certainly any app running in a WebOS VM would have access to those facilities, but Windows apps would not. That means users get inconsistent experiences as they switch apps.

You don't see much of that when running Windows apps on Macs because the underlying OSes have essentially the same facilities. True, Mac OS X offers more touch and gesture facilities than Windows, but the reality is that few Mac apps rely on them. Thus, few users bump into the "why do these gestures that run in Photoshop not work in QuickBooks" kind of issues.

I suppose HP could have WebOS run in its own window, as an isolated virtual machine that interacts with Windows only through shared storage and copy and paste. It would be sort of like using Citrix Receiver for Windows terminal emulation on an iPad (or, as promised, a WebOS tablet when one becomes available) or how desktop virtualization for Windows on a Mac worked in the earliest days. But that's not very compelling -- and simply having your WebOS tablet on your desk next to your Windows PC, with some Wi-Fi sharing would be a more natural, less awkward way for users to run both OSes.

For a unified experience on a PC, WebOS would have to be the host and Windows the guest, like on a Mac. That way, WebOS provides the key facilities for touch, gestures, communications integration, and alerting to both WebOS apps and to Windows apps. It would do so through a UI translation layer, which is how Mac OS X gestures can be used in a Windows VM. HP would have to provide the translation layer, but the Mac virtualization experience shows that approach is in fact doable.

The issue of course is whether WebOS can run a virtualization client. WebOS, after all, is a pretty lightweight OS. Yes, Citrix Systems plans to have its Citrix Receiver thin client for WebOS tablets this summer, but remember that thin clients are easy: The server does all the heavy lifting, and OS integration is limited.

One technology that may allow a WebOS PC to integrate WebOS and Windows is something called Type 1 virtualization. (Type 2 virtualization is used for running Windows on a Mac.) OK Labs, which is partly owned by Citrix, has a Type 1 hypervisor technology that allows both OSes to be guests, with the hypervisor providing the access for applications to the facilities needed in the hypervisor and in the other OS. OK Labs has demonstrated the technology on a primitive cell phone, the Motorola Evoke, that runs Linux and Qualcomm's BREW, and it's the technology that Motorola Mobility is using to run the desktop version of Firefox on its dockable Atrix smartphone due this spring.

Type 1 virtualization could be complex to implement, though, if it is meant to provide Windows apps access to WebOS's unique facilities -- which to me is a key goal of a hybrid PC. Type 1 virtualization is typically used to separate OSes for security purposes while providing access to a common set of hardware services. For this approach to work well in a WebOS-Windows hybrid, it would likely mean the unique WebOS services must be made available in the hypervisor. Still, if WebOS is too lightweight to run Type 2 virtualization, the Type 1 approach might do the job.

All of this is speculation until HP reveals its actual plans for WebOS on the PC. Still, don't be surprised to see virtualization end up as the enabling technology for a hybrid device that runs mobile WebOS and desktop Windows apps in an intermingled, or at least easily toggled, environment.

This article, "How HP could create the WebOS PC," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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