HP: The Linux Desktop Company

For years, HP has had a love/hate relationship with desktop Linux. Now, it will be putting its webOS Linux variant on all of its PCs.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Well, I didn't see this coming. HP CEO Leo Apotheker, according to Bloomberg/Newsweek said that "every one of the PCs shipped by HP will include the ability to run WebOS in addition to Microsoft Corp.'s Windows." I knew HP was serious about webOS, its Linux-based tablet/smartphone operating system. I didn't know that HP was this serious.

For years, with the exception of Dell, most major PC vendors have been very reluctant to offer desktop Linux. This has been because they were afraid of upsetting the 800-pound gorilla of desktop operating systems: Microsoft.

The sales were there. I've been told by sources both at Dell and Canonical that pre-installed Ubuntu Linux PC sales alone have been in the millions. That may not be a lot compared to Windows, but given how hard most PC companies have made it to even shop for Linux-powered PCs, I think it's darn impressive.

HP was one of the worse that way. HP was the last of the major original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to support desktop Linux. Even after HP finally joined the club, the company made it almost impossible to buy its SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) computers. Paradoxically, HP has always done an outstanding job of selling and supporting Linux servers.

HP's plan seems to be to use webOS on all of HP's PC and laptop lines as an embedded alternative operating system to Windows. This isn't a new idea. Splashtop, which was recently made available as an installable Linux desktop for Windows user, has been doing this for years. Today, under a variety of names, you'll find Splashtop Linux on laptops from Acer, Dell, and Lenovo and many other brands. Indeed, HP was one of the first to use Splashtop as embedded, instant-on Linux back in 2009.

Regardless of the PC's maker the idea is always the same: Give Windows users a really fast-to-boot and safe operating system that they can use for Web browsing. In part, that's what HP will be doing with webOS. It's more than that though. HP really wants webOS to be more than just an also-ran in the new tablet operating system world. Indeed, with this move HP has made it clear that wants to be a desktop operating system power as well.

If I were Microsoft I'd be worried. Yes, HP is only offering webOS as a built-in alternative to Windows. But, what if it turns out that users don't just like it, but really like it? What if HP discovers after a year that its users prefer webOS' unified tablet and desktop look and feel over Windows? Would HP stop paying for those expensive Windows 7 licenses and start releasing combination tablet/laptops like Lenovo's ThinkPad X220 powered only by webOS?

Of course, HP would! They'd be fools not to. Without the Windows tax, HP could either undercut the prices of their competition, make more profits on PCs and laptops' notoriously thin-margins, or, in the best of both worlds, do both. Thanks to the sudden rise of tablets, I think HP has finally gotten over their fear of Microsoft and is moving to their own take on the Linux desktop as fast as they can.

Mind you, HP isn't calling webOS a Linux desktop, anymore than Android vendors are admitting that their smartphones are running Linux. Linux has a reputation for being hard to use and suitable only for techies. But, webOS and Android? They're easy! So it is that Linux is stealthily making its way onto our tablets, smartphones, and now thanks to HP, entire PC and laptop lines.

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