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How HP/Palm’s webOS Can Compete with Apple iOS and Google Android

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When I created this website more than 4 years ago, I said that I'd write about technology about 5% of the time. Well I lied. I almost never write about technology. Today I'm going to cash in some of those credits and write about technology. If this is the kind of thing that interests you, you are in luck with one of my longest articles. If not, kindly take a stroll through the archives.

Before I get started on topic in the title, let me preface it with a few disclaimers. I have a degree in Computer Science from a top 30 (according to U.S. News and World report) University - so in a lot of ways technology is "my thing." Secondly, almost every piece of technology I've own has failed on me multiple times. I'm have about 5% success rate with faxes. Scanners work about 12% for me because some mysterious driver conflict in Windows causes it to fail (seriously, you'd think Windows 7 would just work with all printers/scanners/etc., but it doesn't). Sometimes I wonder if certain technology should just disappear. After all, if you spent as much time fixing your car as you did driving it, you'd give up on it too. There are a few pieces of technology that have never failed me. One of them is Palm. I've been using their operating systems and devices since the days of Handspring over a decade ago. If this makes me a Palm "fanboy", so be it. They've earned it.

A (Brief?) History of Three Smart Phones

With that out of the way, I've been a loyal Palm Pre user since it launched on June 6, 2009. That make my phone around 200 in smartphone years. When the phone came out the only thing that was close to it was the iPhone. The iPhone had a big head start, perhaps one of the most loyal customer-bases on the planet, a virtual monopoly in MP3 players and access to songs in their music store, plus a quality device. I'm sure I'm leaving out a lot here, but clearly the iPhone had a lot going for it. Palm was a small company and didn't have a lot of money, so it partnered with one of the troubled carriers, Sprint, in hopes that they could boost each other. Palm made some poor marketing choices with some creepy commercials that inspired spoofs. Despite what many considered the great operating system, webOS, the physical hardware of the phone was criticized for its cheap plastic feel. Within a couple of months, the market had shifted. Verizon starting its "Droid Does" campaign. Though the Palm Pre would be on Verizon in a couple of months, Verizon had chosen to back Google's Android platform. Palm ran into some financial difficulty and started to look for a buyer. During that time Sprint decided it should ride on Verizon's coat tails and the growing Android momentum. It makes a lot of sense, there are a lot of companies making Android phones in a lot of form factors. You can have any Apple iOS phone or Palm webOS phone you want as long as it is what those companies give you. With Google Android you get choices from Motorola, HTC, Samsung, etc.

Apple's iPhone and Google's Android are the big players. Microsoft came out with a Windows phone late last year, but it hasn't picked up traction. Some say RIM's Blackberry franchise is where Palm was a couple of years when it had an aging operating system that needed a complete overhaul to compete with the new one of today (and RIM is working on that new OS). In the meantime, Hewlett-Packard, one of the world's biggest computer companies bought Palm.

That's pretty much led to the where we are today in the smart phone wars. A lot of people are claiming that it's too late for Microsoft, RIM, and HP to compete. They say that software developers have already chosen sides. I'm not buying that. Apple was late to the game with the iPod and iPhone (there were already leading MP3 players and smartphones in the marketplace). Microsoft was late to the game with its Internet Explorer and Xbox - Netscape and Playstation were clear market leaders. Google was late to game with search - Yahoo, Lycos, and AltaVista had already concurred that market. If there's one thing that we can learn from technology it's that it changes constantly (that's kind of inherit in the definition of technology). This especially true when big players have big money to spend as is the case with all the players in the smartphone market.

What HP/Palm Needs to Do to Compete

I'm going to pretend that I follow Microsoft's or RIM's strategy (other than RIM is stealing Palm's user interface for it's new tablet). I'm going to concentrate on what HP/Palm needs to do. From the very solid rumors out there, they are already doing at lot of it. We'll find out for sure on February 9th when Palm holds an Apple-style unvieling of its products. In no particular order, here's what I see:

Top of the Line Smartphone Hardware - I've never seen a bad review of webOS - in contrast every review is glowing. The hardware has receive the complaints. HP/Palm needs to commit to putting the latest processors, cameras, screens, etc. on their devices. People like what they can quantify and that means gigahertz, megapixels, and pixels. You can't catch up unless you are at least on par with other leading phone's specifications. In addition to this, they should continue to have a version with a keyboard and a slate-like version to compete directly with phones like the Evo and the iPhone. The more form factors they put out there the better. It's working beautifully for Android.

A Top of the Line Tablet - Tablets are getting the buzz in the marketplace. Who knew? My old boss in 2004 was onto something when he started selling Windows tablets. Today, I see entire subways covered with iPad advertisements. Palm has hinted that there will be a tablet announced on Feb. 9th, but rumors are dictating there might be two - a 9-inch and a 7-incher.

What will those tablets need?

  • Screen Resolution - The tablets are expected to have the same resolution as iPad (1024x768 pixels). That would be a good start for Palm if they can get it out soon. Everyone knows that the iPad 2 is coming soon. Some say that will have better resolution, but most signs seem to show it will not. HP/Palm's 7-inch tablet with a 1024x768 resolution is rumored to be coming in September. If the iPad 2 steps up the resolution, the 7-inch tablet would counter it well by upping the dots-per-inch over the 9-inch and being more portable.
  • Great Hardware - Like the smartphones, the tablets need dual cameras (video conferencing is a crucial selling point) as well as the latest and greatest chips. It has to look as sexy as the iPad too.
  • Easy Out-of-the-Box Tethering - If you have an iPhone you should be able to use it's data connection via bluetooth for the iPad. It my understanding that this can't be done (due to an agreement with AT&T) now, but will be coming to Verizon. If HP/Palm can make this happen, it would be a big leap as no one wants to pay for double for data (once for their tablet and once for their phone).
  • GPS - I would want to be able to use my 7-inch tablet for GPS navigation. These devices should be converging over the next couple of years. It would be easy to do that now. It should work for wi-fi only versions of the tablets (GPS in phones typically requires access to the network). Wi-Fi versions can come with enough memory set-aside for maps (just like any of the stand-alone GPS navigation systems you see today).
  • Other features - See below for more things that could be integrated into all their devices.

Data lives in the Cloud and Every HP/Palm Device is Connected to it - This is one area where HP/Palm can separate itself from the pack. HP bought cloud computing company 3Par for 2.3 billion dollars in a bidding war with Dell. If my phone, tablet, netbook stay in sync that would awesome. They can push the limits by using webOS' biggest advantage, its focus on web technologies such as HTML and javascript, to create a browser-based version of WebOS. Just pop it out like a chat window and be able to drag web pages, music, video, etc. to the cloud... then access it instantly on your tablet/phone. This would be the kind of "Wow feature that people would love." It is very likely this is where webOS is going... one of the strong rumors is that it comes with "tens of gigabytes" of cloud storage. Not everything can live in the cloud though, users may want read books in the park where wi-fi isn't available (and with a tablet that doesn't have a 3G contract).

"Bump" Information to Other Devices - It is rumored that you'll be able to transfer files by just bumping two devices together. Bump your cell phone to your tablet and you are just where you left off. I wouldn't have mentioned this feature, except that one of the credible rumors says this is a likely feature. Sounds pretty cool to me.

A Netbook - HP/Palm can go a couple of different ways with this one. They could sell a stand-alone netbook running on webOS. If they implement ideas here that could be quite successful. However, they could pull a Motorola Atrix. The Atrix is getting a lot of attention following it's unveiling at the CES earlier this month. Essentially it is a phone that acts as the brains to a notebook. It can be docked into the notebook providing the user with a full-size keyboard and a full-size screen. This is the vision that Palm had years ago with its Foleo product. Looks like the technology with phone processors has caught up enough to make it a reality. If they go this way, the phone should dock into a television like the Atrix too.

Take Advantage of Exhibition Mode - When you have a webOS docked, it enters what is called "Exhibition mode." In that mode it is very much just a display of information while it charges. Typically you get a clock and a calendar... and the phone knows to go into speaker-phone mode on incoming calls. For a tablet it would make sense to double as a digital photo frame. Because Exhibition modes can be customized, I can imagine an application that delivers a rich widget-based experience on a tablet. For example, it could fit a clock, calendar, weather, stock ticker, news feed, etc.

Inductive Charging - One of the unsung features of the Palm Pre was inductive charging. You just set it on the Palm Touchstone and its charging. There's no cords to mess with. Magnets in the Touchstone keep the phone orientated and angled towards the user, so at the office you have a second screen in Exhibition mode.

Focus on Driving Experience - I would love to have a 7-inch GPS.

Premium Audio - The rumors say the tablet will come with premium audio. HP has a partnership with Beats by Dr. Dre. From what I've heard these headphones and speakers are Bose-quality. That's a nice advantage over the iOS and Android tablets.

Partner with Amazon - The former CEO of Palm John Rubinstein joined Amazon's Board of Directors late last year. Perhaps HP/Palm could leverage Amazon's deals with music to create an iTunes competitor as well as have webOS power a color Kindle (like Android powers the Color Nook for Barnes and Noble).

Subsidize Applications, Especially Quality Ones - Apple iOS and Google Android have a hundreds of thousands of applications. While HP/Palm doesn't need a bunch of flatulence applications, it does need to have a lot of them - people like what they can quantify. However, they also need to have the quality ones. They need to partner with banks to get the "take a picture" check deposit. They should get a Netflix Instant Play app on there. Hulu should be subsidized join the party. There should be apps for watching all the major sports in real-time (as long as users pay for the subscription service).

Compete on Price - I'm sure that HP/Palm doesn't want to hear this, but they need to be a loss leader for a while. They need to get devices into the hands of people and win back all the fans they had from the Palm V days.

Pull in the Partnerships - HP has many business distribution channels. It's time for HP to start pushing this out to the enterprise customers.

Ship it Soon - Every day that the goes by without a device being available to people is a day that webOS loses mind-share. HP/Palm needs to get things in people's hands quickly.

Can HP Pull it Off?

They can if they want to. They have to be hungry and willing to go "all-in" with it as they said they'd do in the past. They have the money to hire developers and can take the hit to compete on price. The technology exists to do much of what I've outlined here... and they've certainly had the time to build a lot of them.

Will they pull it off? I can hope so. The market could use more competition. I'm trying not to get my hopes up. It would be nice to have a webOS printer/scanner/fax so that it will actually work as it is supposed to.

Posted on January 21, 2011.

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4 Responses to “How HP/Palm’s webOS Can Compete with Apple iOS and Google Android”

  1. Brad says:

    I recently switched over to the palm pre plus from the blackberry storm. In the beginning I was so pleased with the palm pre on the verizon network. However, it soon dawned on me that I could not take my phone into the office and let it sit around. By the end of the day, with no use at all, I had 20% or less battery. This forced me to buy the touchstone just so I could charge during the day. The webOS is so good. Its fun, its easy, its intuitive. Its so sad to see my iOS friends try and use it like the iphone. They dont get that other programs can run in the background. That is such an advantage in my opinion, they take it for granted because they are “forced” to use the iphone the way apple tells them to. Media certainly doesn’t help either because people believe everything they hear and say on TV. I can openly admit I would get the iphone on my verizon network because of the built in IPOD functions (mine is about to die), and also many apps that I would use frequently. If HP were able to get even a fraction of the quality ones and attract companies to develop on this platform I would stick with palm/hp.

    Also your point about the cheap plastic is true also. the phone just does not feel like a good piece of equipment. I love the slide out keyboard though even though it is small and could be laid out better.

    • Lazy Man says:

      I ended up getting a bigger battery on Ebay (comes with a back) for about $20. It makes it a good deal thicker, but it’s still small enough to get lost in my pants pocket at times. In addition to that there are some tricks you can use (not have email sync up every 5 minutes is one) to increase the battery life.

      The battery life issue is one that seems to plague all the new operating systems and hardware out now. Everyone wants the big screen, Ghz processor, constantly updating information on a razor thin device. The technology simply isn’t quite there yet.

  2. Randy says:

    I was a big fan of Palm in the pre-Pre days. I used it as a PDA, synced to my contacts list and calendar on my PC. I was so impressed, I bought stock back before the Handspring merger. I did well with the stock until I saw the Blackberry. I sold the stock immediately.

    Never used the Palm as cell phone, but glad to hear they are coming out with a tablet. I think tablets are grossly overpriced, everyone I’ve talked to says you still need a laptop.

    Didn’t realize that Palm was working with HP.

  3. Jane Sanders says:

    I am huge Palm fan as well. I owned at least 5 Palm PDAs. After that I used Palm Treo 600 up to Palm Treo Pro. I finally switched to Blackberry about a year ago.

    I hope that this will really be an iPad killer.

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