How the HP TouchPad’s webOS came back from the dead — and what might happen next

August 24, 2011

About 50 days ago, Hewlett-Packard unveiled the TouchPad, a 9.7-inch touchscreen tablet that promised to wow the public with its brand-new, innovative mobile operating system, called webOS.

The device, which launched to mixed reviews and a lukewarm response from buyers, was being pushed heavily at resellers thanks to HP’s massive distribution chain, with a starting price point of $499. It went right up against the Apple iPad (and Google Android tablets).

And it lost. Big time.

So badly that HP all but pulled the plug on webOS last week during its quarterly earnings call. The company announced that it would cease webOS hardware development and begin to look for strategic partnerships where it might farm out webOS as a platform.

In what seemed like a desperate attempt to mitigate its losses, HP immediately began a fire sale on devices, pricing TouchPads at a rock-bottom $99 per tablet. This started a kind of feeding frenzy among technology enthusiasts and deal-hunters. TouchPads became instantly impossible to buy — or even find. HP’s online store was barraged with orders. Staples, Best Buy and Wal-Mart sold through their stock in a matter of hours.

The $99 TouchPad was suddenly the must-have item of the moment, but why?

It could be because people love a deal, but it could also be because HP had misjudged its strategy for selling the tablet.

From the start, the TouchPad couldn’t compete with the iPad on features, design or software selection right out of the gate. But maybe it could have competed on price. It should have, in fact. When you’re selling against the idea of a product such as the iPad, you have to find other ways to a consumer’s heart.

A little more than a year ago, HP, a monolithic PC maker, “saved” PDA innovator Palm from imminent destruction by purchasing it for $1.2 billion. But what HP got from the deal was more than a lineup of handheld devices. It got an extensible and beautiful mobile operating system called webOS that HP claimed it would integrate into a whole suite of products.

HP wanted to develop and support the webOS platform as an in-house operating system. The company wanted its own mobile operating system, which it could use exclusively on its mobile devices, bucking overtures from longtime partner Microsoft, as well as rejecting a new player in the industry, Google.

But what happens to webOS now? I reviewed the TouchPad when it was released in July, and can attest to the platform’s many problems, but I can also attest to the fact that webOS is one of the most advanced and intuitive mobile operating systems available. Will that OS die on the vine now? Will the choice for users and developers become even smaller than it was a month ago?

That seems to be the case, but maybe this story ends in another way.

HP has expressed interest in licensing webOS to a hardware partner. Some have suggested that a small but growing phone-maker such as Taiwan-based HTC might want to take a stab at its own mobile OS, but I think there’s a more interesting partnership to consider: Amazon.

Rumors have recently swirled that Amazon will soon be taking its Kindle business to the next level, namely tablets. The going story is that Amazon will become another Android partner, creating a customized experience based on its ecosystem.

But webOS might actually be a better platform for Amazon for a number of reasons.

Think about it. Amazon would be able to own the entire experience from end to end. Instead of playing second fiddle to Google on software development, the company could put its weight behind a platform of its own in which it would have full control.

There are few companies in the tech world that really stand a chance of making a new operating system viable in the eyes of consumers, but I believe Amazon is one of those companies. It built the Kindle ecosystem from the ground up and controls a vast and popular library of music, TV and video content. It also recently launched a cloud-storage and streaming service not wildly dissimilar to Apple’s iCloud.

Imagine if the company decided to integrate those elements of its business into its own tablet, unhindered by the tightly controlled development of Google’s Android OS?

The possibilities are highly interesting.

If a collaboration of this type did occur, we might see the emergence of a serious new competitor in the tablet space.

And we need all the competition we can get right now.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor-in-chief of the Verge (www.theverge.com), a technology news Web site debuting this fall, and the former editor-in-chief of Engadget. He is the resident tech expert for NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”

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