It's pretty much a given that HP will leap into the tablet wars full force with an announcement on February 9, all but certain to involve the WebOS platform it purchased Palm for last year. But can a WebOS tablet compete effectively against Apple's iPad juggernaut and the rash of Android tablets coming from every direction?
The problem isn't if the computing giant will deliver an attractive product. Palm's development of the WebOS for phones was well-received from the design perspective, including offering multitasking at a time when the iPhone didn't handle it. The question is whether offering a cool tablet based on yet another platform is going to be enough to make a dent against the competition.
Apple has the early advantage and the ubiquity of Android means it will grab a big share of the tablet market just as it's done with smartphones. RIM has a built-in enterprise clientele that could support the new PlayBook, and Microsoft will make its usual half-assed attempt at clawing into the picture with some flavor of Windows 7. Usually the market can't handle that many OSes -- note how Nokia's Symbian and WebOS itself wilted as iOS and Android rose.
Additionally concerning is the fact that it will be increasing hard to innovate enough to make one tablet a must-have over another. Android tablets are already accounting for the iPad's deficiencies by adding cameras and offering a smaller, 7-inch form factor. Apple itself has fixed the lack of multitasking (whether ideally or not) and could address the other issues with a second-generation tablet.
One example of the potential hole that HP could find itself in is PC World's list of suggestions to the company to "blow away" the iPad. If a 7-inch form factor, the Synergy social-media aggregation service, and the Exhibition feature are the best ideas the magazine has got for HP, then Apple won't have much to do to prepare itself for being blown away.
One area where HP could distinguish itself with a WebOS tablet is one the company probably doesn't want to go to: price. A $199 tablet could certainly move units, but that may come at the cost of bigger profits. But most consumers won't know the difference between a $199 WebOS tablet and a $299 Android tablet, so they could vote with their wallets.
Otherwise, HP will have to spend a lot of time convincing developers there's a large enough market of customers that they should be creating apps for its WebOS tablet(s) and any other mobile devices it announces. Already, the company is going to hold a meeting on February 9 to woo developers.
Does WebOS have a chance? With HP's marketing muscle and brand awareness, it can put up a fight -- if. If a tablet is ready to release almost immediately following the February announcement, if it's priced right, and if HP can get an app store up with a decent number of popular programs. Promising a WebOS tablet in the summer might just be too much time for Android tablets and the PlayBook and a new iPad to gain traction. After all, buyers with tablet fever won't wait for a beautiful UI when they have several other choices.
Luckily for HP, even as it needs to stand behind its Palm acquisition for the time being, it doesn't have to tie its whole tablet strategy to WebOS, like Apple has with the iPad. It can pull the plug, or de-emphasize the platform, if sales aren't soaring, and offer Android or Windows-based tablets if those have better commercial potential.
Sometimes (in fact, too often) better designed products can't win in the marketplace. Palm already experienced that with its Pre phone. HP may -- may -- have a similar defeat on its hands with its WebOS tablet. Obviously, the February 9 event will go a long way in answering that question. In the meantime, what do you think HP must do with its WebOS tablet to make sure it can compete with the iPad and Android tablets? Let us know in the Comment section.