Kara Swisher

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With HP’s Raising of the World’s Biggest White Flag, Will Jon Rubinstein and Todd Bradley Surrender Too?

It wasn’t until dinner this past Sunday night that CEO Léo Apotheker told Todd Bradley, the head of its Personal Systems Group, that he was about to push key parts of Bradley’s huge unit off the cliff.

That included stopping selling hardware — smartphones and TouchPad tablets — based on the webOS it acquired from Palm last year, a $1.2 billion deal that Bradley played a big part in.

In addition, HP said it was considering spinning out its PC business and would “explore options to optimize the value of webOS software going forward.”

But, until a few days ago, several sources close to the situation said, Bradley knew nothing of these plans and neither did webOS’s key driver of late, former Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein.

This surprising lack of disclosure by HP to two of its key execs begs the question: Will they stay or will they go now?

According to sources, staying put is the plan for both for now, although it depends on what such a spinoff will look like.

It’s clear at this point that Bradley — who was once the CEO of Palm himself and was once considered the most likely successor to former CEO Mark Hurd, before Hurd’s sudden resignation last year — is the leading CEO candidate of its spun-out independent PC company if that’s what HP decides to do.

But it’s not a lock, either. And, apparently, Bradley has not been locked in with regards to a spinoff either and would likely have a lot of offers from tech companies in Silicon Valley to choose from if he wanted.

“Who will they get if Bradley goes at this point, if they want to spin it off?” said one person at the company.

But, added another: “Bradley is in the catbird seat if he wants to be and it’s his to lose.”

That depends, of course, on what his is.

Questions include:

Will that new company include any of the consumer part of the printer business — a huge cash cow — if HP is indeed leaving the arena?

Will webOS go with the new set-up, so that it can take advantage of the patents and licensing income?

Will HP continue to be the brand name on the devices this computer company spinoff would make?

These are just a few of the issues in a deal of untold complexity. But perhaps the most obvious one is who would get custody of Rubinstein?

To begin: Bradley is a big fan and would certainly want him around if there were a spinoff, said several sources.

But to do what?

Rubinstein, a well-known tech exec, had been leading the webOS efforts for HP, but was recently moved upstairs to a larger but fuzzy role, to run product development and innovation for the PSG unit. He has been reporting to Bradley.

At the time, the move was seen by many as the first step out the door by Rubinstein, with one person joking that “he’d much rather be at his Mexican beach house than HP.”

Among the disgruntlements: Several sources said Rubinstein felt that TouchPad wasn’t ready to ship and that Apotheker has reneged on a public promise not to until the tablet was “perfect.”

That ire is no surprise, since the device was then subject to tough criticism, including by AllThingsD’s Walt Mossberg, who noted in his review:

“… In my view, despite its attractive and different user interface, this first version is simply no match for the iPad. It suffers from poor battery life, a paucity of apps and other deficits.”

In addition, unlike others there, Rubinstein has been more of a product guy and not an HP lifer. That begs the question of whether he’d like to sign up to another big company stint, even if he had more control.

“He’s been to that party before, and the reality is that he is not a career big company person,” said one person.

One important note: Rubinstein was unable to make webOS work when Palm was already a standalone independent company. And, although a new HP spinoff would be huge and better funded, it is still very much an uphill and competitive battle on the computer, smartphone and tablet fronts.

In addition, keeping a competitive operating system going is also a costly bear of an issue.

“It’s a cyclical, high-velocity business and there are other huge players from Apple and Google in smartphones and tablets to Lenovo and Dell in PCs,” said another source. “There might be a lot of great products in the pipeline for webOS, but it will not be easy to make them a success.”

That said, noted another person who knows Rubinstein well, “he really cares about webOS and does not want to see it go away.”

That might be true, although that is just what might happen if HP decides to sell it off to someone else or makes the spinoff a difficult endeavor.

In that case, it’s an offer Bradley and Rubinstein can refuse.

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