HP has always been a smart company, even if it's a tricky puppy to pin down. To data center professionals, it's a server company; to consumers, it's a PC company; to some competitors, it's snidely referred to as "that printer company." It also sells software, services, storage, and much more. And now it seems the company wants to be an OS vendor as well.
To an extent, of course, HP (NYSE: HPQ) already is. That's thanks to its high-end HP-UX server operating system offering, which the company has recently spent a great deal of time bigging up using sponsored research. The company also peddles server hardware running Microsoft's server operating systems as well as Linux open source software, and millions of PCs running Windows desktop operating systems to boot.
But now HP has big plans for WebOS, the little smartphone operating system it acquired when it bought Palm last year for $1.2 billion. Last week, Tom Bradley, an HP vice president, stunned the world by announcing that, starting next year, every PC HP ships will include the ability to run WebOS in addition to Microsoft Windows.
Stunned is perhaps too strong a word -- scratching its head with puzzlement is probably closer to the mark. What does "the ability to run WebOS" actually mean? How on earth would HP get WebOS running on a PC? And, more to the point, why would anybody want to? It's a good mobile phone OS, and probably a great tablet OS. But a desktop OS? Really?
The company has big plans for WebOS beyond the desktop, it turns out. "We'll put the same technology on our printers, we'll put them [sic] on PCs, we'll put them on TouchPads, we'll put them on smartphones, so you'll see this become a very massive, very broad platform," HP boss Leo Apotheker said yesterday.
What's interesting about this is that HP seems to be copying Google's operating system strategy. That, you'll recall, involves Android for smartphones, a version of Android for tablet devices, and the lightweight ChromeOS, which is designed to run on laptops and desktops. It's the same strategy adopted by Apple and Microsoft. Both of these companies have mobile operating systems (iOS and Windows Phone) as well as desktop ones (OS X and Windows 7)
The only real difference between HP's strategy, and those of Google and Apple, is that HP's isn't so foolish as to risk upsetting Microsoft, the 400-pound gorilla of the desktop operating system world, by competing directly in that market. How is it going to pull that off? By making WebOS run in a browser in a Windows environment. "Just to be absolutely clear: Microsoft is a great partner; Microsoft will remain a great partner. The way we have enabled our WebOS technology is to leverage the entire Microsoft ecosystem," Apotheker schmoozed.
And that's a pretty smart move. After all, despite the best efforts of Apple, Google and the Linux community, they've all failed miserably to wrest anything more than a few scraps of the desktop operating system pie from Microsoft. Why should HP be any different? No, HP is proving itself to be canny as well as smart. Its strategy calls for an operating system presence on smartphones, tablets and the desktop, but it's not going to go toe to toe with Microsoft to achieve that.
Instead, it plans to co-exist with Microsoft. For now, at least. As for the future, everything is very much up in the air. Ultimately, much of it will probably end up in the cloud.
Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.