Ina Fried

Recent Posts by Ina Fried

Where Does Googorola Leave HP’s webOS?

In the wake of Google’s megadeal to acquire Motorola Mobility, it’s only natural to evaluate what this means for the other key players in the wireless space. One of the trickiest to figure out is what the deal could mean for Hewlett-Packard and its nascent webOS business.

Given the fears that some have over what Google’s control of Motorola could mean for other Android makers, some have suggested the deal might leave the door open for HP to get more aggressive about licensing its webOS to other device makers.

On one hand, HP has said it is open to some licensing of webOS. That said, the company explained at the time that it was mainly talking about those interested in taking the operating system into new areas, as opposed to those that would compete in the tablet and phone space.

Indeed, licensing webOS would put phone makers in the same position they may find themselves in with Google — that is, competing against the same company whose software they are using. This, tech historians note, is not something that has tended to work well in the tech industry.

Apple briefly licensed the Mac operating system, but ultimately pulled the plug on that effort. Palm tried to be both hardware maker and licensee, sharing its software with Sony and Handspring, among others. Eventually, though, it found that relationship too complicated, and tried to split off its operating system and hardware businesses.

Another option for HP would be to use webOS for tablets, printers and other hardware, but license out the software for use on phones. The appeal of this would be that HP has never been a big player in phones, and it has little revenue today in that area. On the downside, it’s not clear how much interest there is, nor how much money it could make competing against Android, which Google does not charge directly for. Plus, HP has always been more of a hardware company than a software concern.

“It’s hard to imagine licensing would be enough for them without being in the hardware business,” says Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg.

An HP representative declined to comment on the company’s reaction to the Google-Motorola deal, though it may have more to say when it reports earnings on Thursday.

One thing is clear: HP needs to do something if it wants webOS to be a serious player in the mobile space.

So far, HP’s sales of webOS devices have been poor, and that is probably putting it mildly. The Pre phone business essentially disappeared from the radar screen as HP integrated Palm. HP’s only phone to go on sale is the tiny Veer. Though cute, its diminutive size makes it a niche product, and it is available so far from only one U.S. carrier, AT&T. A promised Pre 3 phone has yet to start shipping.

On the tablet side, HP has come out with the TouchPad. Like the original Palm Pre, the first webOS tablet shows a nice combination of ease of use and innovation, but criticism of the hardware and a lack of apps dominated early reviews.

HP hasn’t officially commented on sales, but all indications are that they have been bad. HP has been trying all manner of price cuts, and sources say sales at Best Buy have been especially bad — and that’s from a retailer that said it was pleased with early sales of RIM’s PlayBook.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work