HP debuts Palm Pre 2; room for four in the smartphone market?

HP has announced the Palm Pre 2 and webOS 2.0. Can the smartphone marketplace sustain four platforms?
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Hewlett Packard has finally made good on its acquisition of Palm with the introduction of the Palm Pre 2 device and version 2.0 of its webOS operating system.

I'll leave the details to ZDNet's fearless editor-in-chief Larry Dignan -- among them, a refined, sleeker design on the hardware and Office, VPN and social media support in the software -- but I can't help but wonder if the marketplace can sustain four different platforms.

This concern is hardly new. We wondered about this more than a year ago, long before Google's Android became a formidable opponent to Apple's iPhone in terms of market share.

But as Palm has sat on the sidelines gestating its HP ownership, I've been wondering who will become the third of the Big Three of smartphone platforms. Last week, Microsoft made a compelling argument that the Chrysler of mobile would come from Redmond.

So what about Palm? As Dignan points out, it's really not about smartphones -- it's about tablets. And by tablets, I mean televisions.

Catch my drift? This is a platform game, and the tech giant that can best assemble the pieces will win the share.

Let's review:

  • Apple: phone (iPhone), tablet (iPad), television (Apple TV, sort of -- Apple hasn't paired with a hardware manufacturer here).
  • Google: phone (Android), tablet (Android), television (Google TV, via Sony).
  • Microsoft: phone (Windows Phone 7), tablet (Windows, though this could change), television (Xbox).
  • HP: phone (webOS), tablet (webOS), television (none).

In the race to cover all connected bases, Microsoft is, for now, ahead of HP.

But does it matter? Can the marketplace sustain four operating systems? I'm not so sure.

Take carriers, for instance. In the U.S., we have four (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile), but the last two are losing subscribers -- and the last one is really losing them. So it's clear that four isn't working here, or at least the scales are tipped so strongly toward the first two that the latter two can't catch up.

But platforms don't matter as much if they all keep core tasks in common, such as e-mail, IM, a sufficient browser, quality apps and file support. (One example: as a user of both Macs and PCs, I've come to the realization that the distinction no longer matters for me, as everything I do is supported on both platforms. At this point, it's merely an interface preference.)

The challenge, then, is for each platform to carve out a user niche. If Apple is for premium customers and Android is for geeks, who is Palm for?

The way I see it, there are two options: business and the general consumer. In my opinion, there's a sizeable customer base that finds the iPhone too hip and Android too confusing. The problem is that it appears that Microsoft and Palm are both gunning for the same group -- with Apple also claiming a portion of this group, one of these will have to fail, won't they?

(Which begs the question: why isn't someone going after the business market? It's clear that RIM is moving too slowly to pose a serious threat, and its BlackBerry PlayBook announcement only added to that evidence. I sense opportunity here.)

Regardless of targeting, HP's Palm needs to get aggressive, fast. The Pre needs to be available on all four carriers -- especially T-Mobile and Sprint, whose customers clearly haven't given in to the onslaught of advertising for Verizon's Droids and Apple's iPhones -- and needs to be updated more frequently, at least annually. It needs to go head-to-head with Android handsets at the store and win.

Moreover, the Slate-to-be needs to be perfect. It needs to beat the Samsung Galaxy Tab (Android), a tall challenge considering that that device will be on all four U.S. carriers. Then again, the Galaxy Tab has its drawbacks.

And I haven't even mentioned the content ecosystem aspect. Music, movies, books, apps -- it's all got to come from somewhere.

Can Palm survive in this marketplace? In my opinion, only if it has something to offer consumers that is "better than" -- and not just "equal to" -- what's already out there. The first rumblings since the HP acquisition look promising, but there needs to be a lot more action coming from Sunnyvale.

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