The story of the day seems to be HP's recent unveiling of their upcoming WebOS 2.0-powered devices; one of which happens to be a tablet. This is certainly welcome news as it's the first major release since Hewlett Packard acquired Palm for over a billion dollars last year. The question on everybody's mind, though, is how the HP TouchPad will compete against the myriad of other platforms that will be sold in 2011.
Here is a quick table outlining the technical differences between the HP TouchPad, Apple's iPad, Motorola's Xoom, and RIM's upcoming PlayBook. It should be mentioned, though, that of these four devices, only one is available to buy:
Put beside each other these units might seem almost identical, yet they're really quite different. The underlying software that brings these tablets to life is about as different as one could imagine. Apple's iPad uses an incredibly intuitive (sometimes called "idiot proof") interface that gets out of the way as soon as an application is launched. Motorola's Xoom tablet is running the latest version of Google's Android system, which will provide enormous benefits to power-users who demand maximum customization of their electronics and freedom to install whatever they choose. RIM's PlayBook is running QNX, an operating system they acquired recently which has been gaining some positive reviews and has the added bonus of running Android applications.
And this leads us to HP's TouchPad ... a name that has elements of two wildly successful Apple products, running WebOS.
WebOS has remained something of a mystery for me. Not because it's unavailable outside of North America and Western Europe ... but because it's just so darned attractive, yet unknown outside of a very small percentage of the population. There have been a number of people I've spoken to who would choose a phone or tablet running WebOS over Android due to it's simplicity, superior notification system, and overall attractiveness. If HP can successfully position their tablet and sell it for a reasonable price, they might just give the competition a run for it's money with the typical consumer who doesn't want something from Apple, or a system as complex as Android. One question that I have regarding WebOS, though, is it's ability to handle multiple languages.
I wrote a few days ago about one of the many reasons I loved using iOS, and this feature must be available in every future operating system that I use. Gone are the days of installing separate language packs, fiddling with IMEs, and making concessions just so that a computer can display something correctly. If a 21st century computer is still unable to easily display information in any of the world's major languages, then I'm not interested. WebOS has so far been limited for sale in English, French, German, and Spanish speaking nations ... which could leave HPs dreams of having a global reach dashed if not corrected. None of Apple's products have this problem, nor Android.
A thought that's been working its way around my brain recently is how Microsoft is going to compete in the tablet space. There have been a few Windows-powered tablets on the market for over a decade, yet none of them have made a dent in the space. This is mainly because an operating system designed to be used with a keyboard and mouse cannot possibly compete with one designed for fingers. Mice can be used for precision, whereas our phalanges are used for much less accurately. Steve Ballmer has said that the next version of Windows will be better designed for tablets, but this won't be ready for at least another two years. By then Apple will have had an iPad out for four years, Android for three, and both HP and RIM will be working on their third or fourth major update of their respective operating systems. Where can Microsoft fit in here?
The problem is, they can't. HP knows this, which is why they spent 1.2-billion dollars last year to get their hands on WebOS. In order for HP to succeed in the tablet space they need to get into the corporate world before Apple dominates the market, and before someone figures out how to make Android the perfect enterprise companion. RIM might even have a leg up on everyone in this area due to the pervasiveness of their BlackBerry phones in business, but it's yet to be seen.
So there we have it ... the next six months will see four different systems competing for the hearts, minds, and wallets of the market, not one of these options coming from Microsoft. And, though the hardware for these will be largely similar, it's the software that will make or break the countless billions invested in these technologies. Who will win? It's hard to say at this point with only one product for sale on the market (and due to be updated in the coming months), but one thing is certain: it's going to be an interesting year in this space.