May 6, 2010


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Hewlett Palmard
Take me away from the Pilot
By John “jaQ” Andrews

What does $1.2 billion buy these days? If you’re computer giant HP, it gets you a little company called Palm.

Back in the day, the handheld market was pretty much dominated by Palm. They were bulky, black and white devices with a couple megabytes of memory and few applications other than calendars and address books. They became more capable as competitors emerged — Dell’s Axim line, the Compaq iPAQ, HP’s Jornada and others — but fundamentally, they didn’t change much.

Even when BlackBerrys started attaching themselves to the hips of executives everywhere, it took Palm a few years to catch up and integrate a phone into its portable organizer, creating the Treo.

And then, the iPhone. BlackBerry still has a good hold on the business market, but the iPhone entered with Apple’s splash and dash behind it, something stodgy ol’ Palm could never compete with. Their best comeback was a rewrite of their operating system, upgrading from the venerable PalmOS to the sleek new webOS. Higher performance and definitely prettier to look at, webOS made the recent Pre and Pixi phones worth considering among the tons of smartphone options available.

Worth considering, but not exactly winners.

Enter HP, a major computer maker but only a small phone player. Did you even know they made phones? They do. Mostly higher-end deals with touchscreens or QWERTY keyboards and running Windows.

“Windows on a phone? That’s crazy!” I hear you. That familiar interface can only take you so far, and a handheld device really demands a different thought process than a desktop with a big monitor, mouse and huge, comfortable keyboard. You need super efficiency not just in the use of limited hardware resources, but in user interaction.

Hey, didn’t Palm just totally rewrite their operating system? Hmm…

When HP merged with Compaq in 2002, it took a couple years for the two companies’ strengths to really come together. HP still retains some of Compaq’s Presario branding on its consumer computers, because the name is trusted. HP just completed another acquisition last month — 3Com, a major networking company. Even though HP has its own line of enterprise-class networking products, the 3Com lines will still be available for some time.

In other words, don’t look for a sudden burst of HP phones and the disappearance of the Palm name any time soon. Palm stayed connected with consumers by offering fairly cheap phones, so it fills out the low end of HP’s existing product line quite well. If they’re smart, HP will attach the Palm name to its high-end phones too.

Some industry watchers are concerned that HP’s ownership of webOS is a slap in the face to Microsoft, but really it promotes Windows very well: on cheap phones, you get webOS; pay more and you get Windows! Besides, HP has offered its own version of UNIX on servers for ages without Microsoft throwing a hissy fit.

If there’s one machine where webOS and Windows could compete, it’s the upcoming Slate touchscreen tablet. A ZDNet writer, Andrew Nusca, mocked up the phone software on the HP Slate for kicks and it has all them bloggers buzzing. While it might happen, I’d bet on a Windows version coming out first. The Palm purchase isn’t even complete yet, and the Slate is due out this year. We’ll see.