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HP's WebOS Reinvention Could Spread

HP's announcement that it would make WebOS available as a dual-boot standard on all its personal computers was pretty revolutionary in business terms. The company has built its PC business by riding the Windows wave, after all. The most interesting thing about the decision may not be whether it hurts Microsoft, but how it might impact enterprises and even consumers in the broadband space.

WebOS is an appliance operating system that HP got through the Palm acquisition (some would say it's the only thing they got). If HP is ever going to monetize its investment in Palm it has to make WebOS succeed as a competitor to smartphone and tablet OSs like iOS and Android, so you might wonder why they'd make a dual-boot decision for their whole PC line. I think there are two reasons, and both have the kind of broad impact that makes the move a potential game-changer for us all.

The first reason is that a decision to put WebOS on every PC creates a potentially enormous installed base very quickly. You don't have to buy a WebOS appliance to get it, you'll just have to buy an HP PC. But hey, everyone wants a big installed base to attract developers, so why is this important? Because HP has to not only get WebOS on the PC, it has to keep it there, and get it run by users. Users can uninstall or ignore the WebOS face of their PCs, after all, so all the dual-boot decision does is get WebOS an audition, not the part. That means HP will have to link WebOS to something convincingly valuable both for consumers and most significantly for enterprises.

It's pretty clear that one of those compelling linkages HP wants to exploit is the WebOS tablet, and the tablet explosion is really the driver for wanting WebOS to succeed--it grabs HP a seat at the table. But to justify WebOS with customers, HP will have to create application connections. That means a combination of a compellingly interesting GUI for developers to support and a really useful coupling to enterprise thin client and virtual desktop initiatives. Both make sense; HTML5 support is a given in any tablet or PC, and HTML5 is a good framework to exploit for developing consumer apps and enterprise application front-ends.

But it's value as part of the cloud that really will make or break WebOS. HP admits it's kind of lost its way with the cloud, and getting back on track through WebOS would kill two marketing birds with one stone. Any thin client or HTML5 browser is cloud-capable, but that's not enough of a differentiation. HP will have to launch its own host-side cloud strategy and make that strategy sing like a Stradivarius when implemented through WebOS.

And not just any cloud strategy will accomplish HP's goals here, either. Since an Infrastructure-as-a-Service cloud has no real application personality, that would suggest that HP needs to have a Platform-as-a-Service strategy like that of Microsoft with Azure, and that would imply middleware acquisitions are in HP's future. The fact that Microsoft is now field testing the Azure Platform Appliance--a cloud-in-a-box strategy--with hardware partners puts HP in the delicate position of deciding whether to support a competing strategy to Azure and risk not being one of the Azure Platform partners; jumping on Azure and seemingly going back to a Windows dependency versus WebOS; or looking like they have multiple personality disorder.

Another challenge is that any move by HP to popularize WebOS like this necessarily forces a countermove by its competitors. Apple, for example is certain to tighten its integration between iOS and OS/X, which makes it even more critical for HP to make WebOS succeed both on the desktop and on appliances. Microsoft clearly won't like a WebOS push by HP, and that could mean that it pushes its Live and Azure strategies more toward Windows platforms and HP competitors. That again raises the stakes for HP. Then there's Google. Asus says it will be offering Android on netbooks and even on the Intel-sponsored MeeGo, both of which are based on Linux. Google is already a cloud giant. How many battles can HP fight, particularly given the fact that its last quarterly results suggested it wasn't fighting even its current battles all that successfully?

Thin client and cloud applications tend to make any end-user system into a front end and not a computer. That might mean that the differentiation between PCs and tablets or smartphones--the ability to host their own applications and storage--would become less valuable over time. The result of that, were it to come true, would be not only to undermine the Windows 7 platform for tablets but possibly undermine the whole PC space. HP might be destroying its PC business to save its tablet hopes, in short. It might also be thinking that with thin client and virtual desktop technology, it could translate PC software into something running on servers that are more profitable.

For enterprises, this might mean a real drive toward establishing a thin client and virtual desktop option, a huge step in controlling the cost of supporting desktop and laptop users. But only time will tell how much of a "client war" HP can start here. They're surely going to try.