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?
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.