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Microsoft and HP: Love on the rocks?

When Microsoft announced it was pulling the plug on its Itanium support earlier this year, I wondered whether there was any pushback from HP, a long-time Itanium backer. But given this week's turn of events -- with HP buying Palm and rumors that HP might not come to market with its Windows 7 slate -- many industry watchers are wondering whether the long-time Microsoft-HP love affair has gone sour.

When Microsoft announced it was pulling the plug on its Itanium support earlier this year, I wondered whether there was any pushback from HP, a long-time Itanium backer. But given this week's turn of events -- with HP buying Palm and rumors that HP might not come to market with its Windows 7 slate -- many industry watchers are wondering whether the long-time Microsoft-HP love affair has gone sour.

Microsoft and HP aren't going public with any "he said/she said" details, so it's hard to know for sure. But let's look at what we do and don't know, at this point.

Things we don't know for sure:

1. The fate of the HP/Windows 7 slate TechCrunch is citing one unnamed source who they are portraying as having been "briefed on the matter" saying HP has decided not to deliver the Windows 7-based slate that Microsoft and HP have been touting for the past few months, and which many were expecting to ship this summer.

I've seen other reports claiming that HP officials told analysts that they had decided to postpone or kill the Slate due to HP's Palm acquisition. In fact, no one from HP said that (according to the transcript from that call). Here is what HP's Executive Vice President Todd Bradley did say:

Q: Todd, what is the timeline to evolve webOS to run on HP hardware and specifically on different form factors with larger screens? A: So, first, we need to get the transaction closed before we get to talking about timelines. Obviously, as part of due diligence, we ensure the capability to create these products, but we have not announced any specific timelines at this point.

I asked an HP spokesperson in the Personal Systems Group whether the Win 7 slate was dead and was told: "We don’t comment on rumors or speculation."

2. Whether HP will still make Windows Phone 7 devices

When Microsoft announced its list of Windows Phone 7 partners in March, HP was on that list. (OEMs "committed to include Windows Phone 7 Series in their portfolio plans" included Dell, Garmin-Asus, HTC Corp., HP, LG, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Toshiba and Qualcomm Inc." HP has not leaked or shown off any Windows Phone 7 devices so far. But now that HP owns Palm, will the company put all its mobile eggs in the webOS basket or, as some other phone makers like HTC have done, diversify its phone lines with different products based on different operating systems?

Things we do know for sure:

1. Microsoft's Courier is dead

Microsoft has decided not to bring to market its Courier dual-screen tablet, company officials confirmed early this week. I've seen some folks speculating HP -- because of its background in touch tablets -- might have been the OEM that Microsoft was counting on to build Courier. I had not heard any rumors that Microsoft was looking to HP as one or one of a few Courier OEMs. In fact, I had heard Courier would be like Xbox, Zune and Kin -- something Microsoft was planning to single-source and market as a "Microsoft" product.

2. HP is still one of Microsoft primary PC and server partners.

Even if HP does decide to bring to market a number of webOS-based phones and tablets/slates, I'd be very surprised if HP was planning to end its long-term, lucrative Windows OEM partnership with Microsoft. I've seen some bloggers claim HP is tired of its dependence on Microsoft and sick of paying Redmond for each copy of Windows it preloads on its PCs. But if Microsoft continues to get phone makers running Linux-based operating systems to agree to license its patents, "free" Linux operating systems might not be so free any more...

A growing number of OEMs are looking to phone/mobile operating systems to power their slate/tablet offerings for a variety of reasons. Mobile operating systems often offer better battery life than client-based operating systems, like Windows. To date, mobile operating systems have required lower per-copy licensing fees than client-based ones.

But mobile operating systems don't have the same variety of applications available for them as client-based OSes do. Sure, you can find lots of Web-based apps and apps that run on smartphones which their makers may or may not have customized for slates/PCs. But there aren't anywhere near as many business apps, custom apps and rich-client apps that have been ported to phones as are available on PCs.

There's debate internally at Microsoft, I hear, as to whether the Windows Phone OS should/could be used as a PC operating system. But remember: The Windows client team is the golden child these days in Redmond and the Windows Phone team is a (much) struggling entity.

Microsoft isn't talking about whether HP is still going to deliver the Windows 7 slate. If HP doesn't, does Microsoft have a Plan B partner on whom it will pin its future tablet/slate hopes? No word so far.

One of my sources did raise an interesting question, "We all should be asking why strong partners like HP and Dell promote new devices that are not based on Microsoft technology and what the impact will be as PCs evolve. Is Microsoft further destined to become even more like IBM?"

What's your take?