HP on WebOS slates, printed displays and Wi-Fi watches

What's a supposedly staid company like HP doing at Maker Faire? Fitting in perfectly.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor and  Mary Branscombe, Contributor

What's a supposedly staid company like HP doing at Maker Faire? Fitting in perfectly. The personal systems group is a make-do and innovate shop that comes out with everything from generic notebooks and dull Windows Mobile phones to innovative touch screen PC two years ahead of everyone else and is home to the engineer who built a frankenPC under his desk that ended up inspiring HP to buy Voodoo. CTO Phil McKinney runs HP's innovation office in what you might call his spare time, shepherding new product ideas into production - or as far as concept models if they turn out to be the wrong new idea. He brought a handful of old and new models along to the Faire where they fitted in nicely as a look at the next five years alongside home hydroponics for vegetables and 3D printers for the home (an idea that HP is tinkering with "if you can solve a number challenges of the quality of the goods you produce").

To dispose of the least information first, no matter what you think you've read, the WebOS slate isn't confirmed as an actual product - certainly not the Slate (although even some Microsoft insiders think that HP has abandoned the idea of Windows 7 on a slate). "Don’t believe everything you see online," McKinney told me; "I've just stopped reading this stuff". Usually he'd be willing to say at least something about the market if not the product plans, but the Palm deal closes July 31 and the company can't say anything significant and binding before then without significant penalty from the financial regulators. What he will say is that HP will use WebOS "across a wide range form factors" and he describes it as "the first Web-based OS that allows developers to create apps easily that are really powerful".

HP started working on what became whatever the Slate turns out to be five years ago, when it was thinking about getting into the ebook reader market. The thing to remember, McKinney often ponints out, is that you "you can't solve the whole problem at once; it's a question of what can you take from what you've done that's incremental?"

Something else he showed us five years ago was a 'personal wireless hub' disguised as a watch, complete with an inductive charging shelf to put it down on. The Friday before Maker Faire a company who'd been inspired by the idea showed up with a working prototype. "HP wouldn't go do that," McKinney said, "we're not in the fashion business, but they went ahead. There have been a number of changes to the idea, but it's real, it's working - and they used the idea of the watch to sell it to their management."

Next he unrolled a sheet of a flexible display substrate, printed onto the same mylar sheet that HP uses to print flexible solar cells; HP can print another layer on top that turns the substrate into a display. It's still about two years away from becoming a product and there are limitations. "Does this mean you can have a display that you can roll up and put in your pocket? No." He turns the sheet over to show that just carrying it around to show to people has caused so much wear and tear that the screen wouldn't last. But what you can do is print out a low-cost 40 foot screen that can turn any wall into a display surface you can walk up to.

Your phone could use the display, or maybe it's connected to a cloud service that accesses the data on your phone - or in the rings you're wearing to make your hand gestures easier to read, which today are based on HP's MemorySpot and have 256MB of storage in a chip literally the size of the point of a pencil (that streams data at 10Mbps). Terabyte SD cards are just around the corner so "I can literally carry my computer with me" says McKinney - and then there's the storage you could get with memristors, which give you memory that's as fast as RAM but doesn't need power. "Memristors fundamentally change the way you design products," says McKinney.

And having a surface that's a display rather than a computer helps with security. "It has no compute, and no residual information," he points out;" we can get away from the standpoint that a device is 'yours' and have a whole set of shared devices around". That, he thinks, will work if we can avoid some of the "privacy mistakes" that have been made in online services. But he also points out (with the experience of having worked at one of America's 'three-letter' national security agencies, that "security is one of those things where you're never done; you build a better lock and they build a better lock pick."

What about the bandwidth we'd need to make these kind of shared devices and surfaces work when we barely have enough for 3G? McKinney (who has a background in telecoms) is relying on 'whitespace' ; access to unlicensed spectrum that separates TV channels previously used to stop interference between the channels. That could be in use as early as 2011, but in the mean time, he agrees "2010 is going to be a bad year for bandwidth".


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