Ditching iPAQ for webOS was HP's biggest historical mistake

HP should have held onto its iPAQ range to the bitter end, and is still suffering the consequences today of making possibly its biggest mistake to date.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

There is something ominously beautiful about the iPAQ, even today, years after it became defunct.

It's hard to remember a name of a device prefixed with the lower-case 'i', before the likes of Apple and trampled every product with the moniker.

But there was a time, a carefree time, when the UK market was swamped by Windows Mobile devices of all generations, from HP's iPAQ range to O2's xda range -- and the U.S market was revelling in a touch-screen PDA revolution, too.

It was a time where the tie clips came off, the top shirt button was left undone, and email was synchronised effortlessly over the air with Exchange on a native Windows-powered device.


Nothing could knock it from its perch. That is, until Apple came along and manhandled it to the ground; pressing down on its neck with its mighty foot on the curb of the sidewalk, not before wringing its neck in chilling cold blood.

But we aren't complaining. As consumers and enterprise users, like the folly gathered at a public hanging of the King in true vive la revolution style, we cheered in delight that the old ways were gone. A new wave of consent and free speech had enabled us, to download applications as and when we see fit, and to synchronise all of our Gmail and Exchange accounts, when we choose to. (Image Source: Flickr)

But when Compaq threw itself into the arms of HP in 2002, HP carried on the line of iPAQs -- a series of Windows-powered smartphone slash PDA devices, which led the way into the smartphone revolution we see ourselves in now.

HP outsourced much of the manufacturing to Taiwanese giant HTC; probably why the build quality of the iPAQ was elite amongst its Palm competitor. Had HTC designed the TouchPad, perhaps it would not have floundered so epically.

Out of nowhere, Mark Hurd, known to be on his last legs amid a career-killing sex scandal, made the decision for HP to buy Palm. A rival to HP, Palm sold Palm OS-powered smartphone slash PDA devices, which also led the way into the smartphone revolution we see today.

HP tried to compete with its new Palm acquisition, but failed. Though Microsoft barely dented the market, there was little choice out there for end-consumers, and people recognised the booming Windows tag far more widely than Palm's diminishing brand.

Palm faltered, but was given the cardiac massage it needed back to life by HP's marshals of the dark forces. At this point, the relationship between HP and Microsoft began to change.

As HP began to learn of Windows Phone 7, an altogether different operating system to its previous device software, and realised that half of its products were defunct, old and seriously behind on the times. Half of the iPAQ range did not even have wireless compatibility, designed as disconnected devices for embedded-only systems.

But Microsoft wanted to go a different way and take the new version of its Windows Mobile software elsewhere. It wanted to take away the PDA element of the operating system and make it a true rival to Apple's iPhone.

HP went with Palm as its mobile operating system, leaving Windows Mobile 6.5, the last version of the 'Windows Mobile' branding, out to pasture. Only the iPAQ Glisten ran Windows Mobile 6.5, and the phone itself went into limited production.

While it would not disappear for good, left as the one and only option for the latest iPAQ branded smartphones, it is widely discontinued and only sold on older models of iPAQ devices.

This effectively ended the HP-Microsoft relationship. Though they ended on good terms, Microsoft came off better in the custody battle as it held onto Windows Phone 7, while HP had to make do with newly acquired Palm's webOS.

Though this may sound like a bad thing, HP was excited at the chance to do something with a new operating system. It had the phones, the devices, the schematics and design tools to make new Palm products under the HP name: it was a set thing, and everyone was ready for it.

The in-between the acquisition and present day is not that important, for the sake of this article. No, instead the fact that webOS basically replaced Windows Mobile devices is the kicker here. In short, it shouldn't have.

iPAQ's were small, handheld, and some even had mobile network hardware. Sure, the operating system was a bit slow, but it was reliable, dynamic, enforceable by set and group policies, and it was an IT administrators' ideal handheld. webOS, on the other hand, was the IT administrators' worst nightmare. Not only was it an alien platform, but it barely had a shred of 'Microsoft-ability' in there.

But had it continued, and development strengthened, the iPAQ range could have become larger, and thinner, with more memory and greater hard disk space. The technology was already there; they just had to make the screen wider. You would have, in the space of a year of development, an iPad competitor.

With the iPAQ, HP had a legitimate competitor to BlackBerry. With the range of touch-only phones and QWERTY-keyboard integrated models, iPAQs had the potential to take on the giant that is Research in Motion.

But by orphaning Windows Mobile, HP had taken the iPAQ out into the woods, where nobody could hear, and nothing but a bottle of bourbon and a shotgun over its shoulder.

Microsoft, though does nothing with older versions of Windows Mobile, focusing instead on its new flashy Windows Phone models, still does not want to let go of the legacy mobile operating system. Having said that, it would not be in Microsoft's interest to sell off or license in full older versions of its Windows Mobile software, as it wants Windows Phone on as many of its pre-conditioned, perfected third-party phones as it can.

HP doesn't have a stake in this anymore, and Microsoft said goodbye without turning a blind eye.

Had HP not focused its effort on owning its own ecosystem -- hellbent on owning the handsets and operating system that it could not do with Microsoft, perhaps the iPAQ could continue down the line into the modern world we live in today.

Had Palm not have been bought, throwing in the iPAQ towel in favour of webOS phones, HP would not have had to get rid of it only a few years down the line. HP barely got anything out of Palm, and killed off the old dog long before its time was due.

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