HP's Slate was an Ugly Baby with Windows 7

Hewlett-Packard purchased Palm for one reason: compared to iPad, Windows 7 made their Slate look like an Ugly Baby.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Hewlett-Packard purchased Palm for one reason: compared to iPad, Windows 7 made their Slate look like an Ugly Baby. (Baby photo from VintagePixels.com)

There's been quite a bit of speculation lately about why HP, which was never really considered to be a serious Palm suitor by the digital weberati decided to consummate a marriage to the tune of $1.2 billion with the ailing smartphone vendor.

My friend and colleague David Gewirtz at ZDNet Government talks about the sordid, painful history of Palm as a company and what the possible value proposition -- if any -- remains with Palm's assets for Hewlett-Packard. He doesn't seem to think there's much there to salvage or understand the logic behind the purchase, but I'm going to try to make some sense of the entire thing.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

Let us start with a story of two tablet computers: The HP Slate and the iPad.

The road towards Palm for Hewlett-Packard probably started about a year ago, when the first rumors of an Apple Tablet began to emerge from the nether regions of Silicon Valley. Not to be outmaneuvered by Apple in the consumer space, HP almost certainly began developing the current Slate hardware on a crash program, believing they could have a compelling product ready to sell in early 2010.

Taking stock of the technologies that HP had available, the company quickly decided to base its tablet on an the Intel Atom, not unlike the core of what exists in their existing netbook product line.

This decision to re-use netbook x86 technology in the Slate would allow the company to accelerate development without having to design an entirely new hardware platform for their tablet, and would give them the ability to run a wide range of software on the device without resorting to specialized embedded ARM-based designs.

After all, HP had done ARM-based products before, such as their early Jornada Windows CE-based "HPC Pros", and they failed miserably. That business, as well as the labs and development for those devices, had long been shuttered.

Fast forward to January 6, 2010. HP enlists Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to show off their Slate design at the Consumer Electronics Show, wowing the crowd with its technology and its full-blown Windows 7 OS. Had that been the only significant tablet announcement in 2010, things may have been peachy.

Three weeks later, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announces the iPad. And then everything changed.

Suddenly, compared to the iPad, the HP Slate is starting to look downright clunky. The Slate, sporting a WSVGA display with a 1.6Ghz Intel chip and 5 hours of total battery life per charge, is completely upstaged by the much more agile Apple iPad, with 10 hours of battery life, a higher resolution XGA screen and ultra-responsive and low-power A4 custom ARMv8-based System on a Chip (SoC) silicon.

Internal HP Slate pre-launch PowerPoint slide detailing the iPad "Threat". (Source: AOL/Engadget)

As if the sleeker and more innovative hardware wasn't a knockout punch in and of itself, the efficient iPhone OS on the iPad -- given a meager 256MB of main memory -- still manages to run circles around Windows 7, which due to its full PC roots is highly resource constrained in a whopping 1GB RAM.

To add insult to injury, the Slate's Wireless-G 54Mb networking is nearly six times slower and far less powerful in terms of signal strength than iPad's 300Mb Wireless-N when running in native modes.

Sure, the Slate has two built-in cameras, USB ports and SD expansion, which the iPad lacks, but compared to Apple's software ecosystem, incredible sex appeal and superior marketing savvy, they might as well not even be there.

And with 2,500+ optimized apps at launch, along with 150,000 apps for iPhone in the App Store, accompanied by a massive library of digital media from iTunes which can be installed with a simple click of a button, Windows 7 -- Microsoft's flagship OS for PCs -- very much starts to look like chopped liver as a tablet contender.

As evidenced by the leaked pre-launch PowerPoint slide above, HP knew that compared to the iPad, their baby was ugly.

What to do, what to do.

HP probably thought they could launch the Slate as-is, hoping to attract the PC geek market segment to the device. They may very well still, in order to make some short term profits. But long term, Windows 7 wasn't going to cut it, and they knew it. And they weren't about to jump into the Windows Phone 7 fray and port/adapt an unreleased, unproven embedded OS to hardware they already developed.

HP could port Google's Android to the x86 tablet, but then there would almost certainly be developer and application porting issues when dealing with CPU architecture differences -- Android was designed to run on ARM-based systems, like the iPad.

And after its PC arch enemy, Dell Computer, announced its upcoming fleet of ARM-based Android devices, it knew it had to do something to differentiate -- especially after HTC, one of the prime manufacturers of Android phones had just been dinged by Apple with a lawsuit.

What do you do with a lemon? You make lemonade. And Palm was the sugar that HP needed, at the price it was willing to pay, in order to solve that problem on its Slate.

The smartphone stuff was just a bonus, although I'm not entirely convinced HP is ever going to be a serious contender in the smartphone marketplace with WebOS. It's too much of an uphill battle and the market is completely saturated. As I have said before, Darwinism will eliminate the weaker players in the smartphone ecosystem soon enough.

With the acquisition also HP inherits Palm's developers, which at this point, unlike those who are reaping the benefits of Android and iPhone OS have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Unlike Android, WebOS doesn't have the downside of already having a huge developer ecosystem which would revolt if they had to port their applications over to the new x86 architecture and run a totally separate development environment for it.

As it turns out, and quite fortunate for HP, the WebOS UI and API stack -- which uses Linux as its kernel and driver core and is already netbook compatible -- can be ported to x86 quite easily.

The existing WebOS application base of 1500+ programs, while not huge, will run pretty much as-is with some simple re-packaging and screen optimization, because the apps are all written in the lingua franca of the Web, HTML and Javascript, and are completely CPU platform neutral.

This means that the existing Slate design can be used as transitional hardware if HP eventually decides it wants to join the less power-hungry ARM tablet world along with Dell and Apple, without significantly disrupting its developer base.

And unlike Windows 7, which requires manual software installations just like a PC, Palm has an App Catalog, much like Android's Market or Apple's App Store, which will allow applications to install with a simple click of a button.

Provided that HP can figure out how to entice developers to build WebOS tablet apps, the agile and multi-tasking WebOS with its innovative UI might actually make some headway versus the iPad.

And unlike Windows 7, which is stressed on 1GB of RAM on a 1.6Ghz Atom, the hardware specs on the Slate are actually quite generous for WebOS to run in, which was designed to operate speedily in 25 percent of the device's memory on the original 256MB Palm Pre, with only a 600Mhz ARM.

On the Slate, WebOS should easily match performance of the iPad, and with its apps written with open Web standards, should allow for rapid application development if HP manages not to screw up a huge opportunity and is able improve Palm's developer program.

Given some accelerated development, and some fancy footwork on integrating Palm into HP's corporate culture, we may very well see a WebOS-powered derivative of the Slate by Fall of 2010.

And the ugly Windows 7 baby will become just a distant memory.

Disclaimer: I work for IBM, Hewlett-Packard's largest competitor in the enterprise computing and technology consulting industries. IBM sold its Personal Computer division to Lenovo in 2004, no longer has a significant stake in the company, and no longer competes with HP in that industry or currently sells retail consumer electronics products.

The postings and opinions on this blog are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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