HP and Linux' OEM problem

In freeing itself from the tyranny of Windows, HP takes software and customer responsibility into its own hands. If HP succeeds Microsoft is in real trouble.

An Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), the brand name on your PC, wants the software it supports to deal with customers so it can deal with everything else.

By this I mean it wants software with scaled support, and with the marketing heft to help push units through stores. It wants software that will bring people into the stores and keep them off the manufacturer's back.

Linux has never been able to do this in consumer markets. Last year's CompuTex show in Taiwan showed why. The companies that offer Linux distros are too small to do this job on a global scale. So Taiwanese OEMs feel locked into their contracts with Microsoft, which despite its faults, its trips and dramas, can do all this.

What makes Google exciting to Taiwanese OEMs is that it can do all this. They have seen, with Android, how Google can move the merchandise, how it can keep customers from yelling at the hardware maker, and how its free price and easy customization can actually make it better than Windows.

But not everyone is thrilled. HP, for instance, doesn't want to swap the Windows handcuffs for Google ones. That's why it has acquired rights to two Linuxes -- Palm's webOS and Phoenix Technologies' HyperSpace.

(Hat tip to long-time friendly rival Steven Vaughan-Nichols for inspiring my thoughts this morning.)

The former is considered a big deal, $1.2 billion for a recognized consumer brand. The latter deal was barely noticed, but may prove more important.

webOS is expected to power HP's coming iPad replacement, and if the company could find a phone maker to give it a whirl so much the better. Windows failed HP on tablets -- HP made tablets for years before the iPad -- so the buzz is understandable.

But HP faces an uphill struggle here. This is a crowded market. There may not be an app for that. In a way HP has imported the Linux distro problem remarked upon earlier. It's responsible for total customer satisfaction. Its name is both on the box and inside.

The freedom from Windows, if it comes, will be hard-won.

In the long run HyperSpace may be a better deal.

That's because HyperSpace works in the BIOS. It starts to work as soon as you turn the device on, while Windows is still loading. This makes it a feature, one HP can promote even against other Windows PCs. And at $12 million the software was literally as cheap as chips.

Besides, HyperSpace offer HP room to grow in the Linux space. By organically adding capabilities, it can eventually have something that makes Windows redundant on low-power machines like netbooks. (You remember netbooks, don't you?) That niche can, in time, expand, if there is low-overhead instant-on software that lets you use one as fast as you can flip open a phone.

The problem, however, will remain in any case. In freeing itself from the tyranny of Windows, HP takes software and customer responsibility into its own hands. It's something no Linux distro owner has been able to do in a consumer market.

If HP succeeds Microsoft is in real trouble.