HP's TouchPad: They have the hardware, now they just need to build a market for it [video]


Yesterday HP held their WebOS event (the video of it is embedded at the end of this post), revealing a couple of new phones and their 10" tablet, the TouchPad. Ryan Faas has a great write-up of the event here at ITworld and I'll refer you to his post for specifics about the new gear.

Jon Rubinstein, senior vice president and general manager for Palm, holds the Palm TouchPad during a media presentation in San Francisco.

REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach The announcement got me thinking about tablet operating systems. We've got five now, right? Apple of course has the iPad running iOS, HP now has the TouchPad running WebOS, Blackberry has the PlayBook running Blackberry OS, and a host of companies are headed to market with Android Honeycomb and Windows 7-based tablets. So how is HP going to get a piece of the tablet-buying pie?

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More generally, how are consumers going to make out heads-or-tails from all these choices? In corporate settings IT departments will examine the pros and cons of each OS and pick the right tool for the job, but down at the local Best Buy, what's going to set these tablets apart from each other? Sure, savvy gadget freaks can point out the differences but an iPad and the TouchPad sitting side by side look awfully darned similar. (Check out Engadget's side by side comparison.) You turn on the tablet and you see a screen with icons. Again, you and I can immediately spot huge differences but will the average consumer who has decided to join the tablet revolution? So, here's this consumer who has decided to get a tablet. To his eyes, they all look the same turned off. As he powers them up and starts playing with them, they first seem very similar and then slowly differences start becoming apparent. With enough fooling around the potential customer can start understanding the differences. That's a good first step. But which one to choose? Think of all the debate and hand-wringing that some people go through deciding between a Mac and a Windows computer. When buying a tablet they don't have two choices, they have five. I suggest that the typical consumer will decide based on a few factors. If they have a smartphone they'll get a tablet with the same OS; that generally makes sense (says the guy with a Droid and an iPad). Why? Apps. Once you've invested (either in terms of money, time or routine) in a set of apps it just makes sense to keep using them in a bigger format. Apps tend to lock us into an OS. In the event they don't have a smartphone, they're going to go with what their friends have. Probably their interest springs from having used a friend's device and they want to replicate that experience. Statistically the friend is most likely to have an iPad or possibly (by the time the TouchPad launches this summer) an Android tablet. Alternatively they go with a Windows tablet because they know what Windows is. So back to HP; the TouchPad looked very interesting during the presentation but who are they going to sell it to? Sure, they've got the Palm Pre audience sewn up, but how big of a market share is that? A lot depends on pricing and no one is talking about costs yet. If I were HP, I'd sell the Pre 3 and the TouchPad in a bundle package at a nice discount, just to get the platform off the ground. Maybe a shared data plan across them both. They're designed to work so well together; more so than any other platform we've seen. During the presentation Sachin Kansal, HP's Director of Product Management, focused a lot on how seamlessly you could go from Pre to TouchPad and back again in some cases just by tapping the two devices against each other. It was an impressive demo. Next, woo app developers in a big way. WebOS already has the cornerstones of the app world (I refer to, of course, Angry Birds and a Kindle app) but HP needs to keep watching what's hot in the app world and offering incentives to port apps from iOS or Android over to WebOS. Last, we know the WebOS is coming to HP computers in some format. Get that program going ASAP. That's an excellent backdoor into the lives of consumers. Get them hooked on WebOS by bundling it free with the computer they bought at Wal-Mart, then upsell them a TouchPad that runs the same applications. The point is, Apple has a huge headstart in this market, and Android has a full head of steam (and remember, by the time the TouchPad is shipping we'll have seen iPad 2 and the Motorola Xoom will be old tech). HP is starting out behind; it's going to take some radical thinking to jump-start the TouchPad bandwagon. If you were HP, how would you sell this device?

Peter Smith writes about personal technology for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @pasmith.

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