HP had a big day today, introducing the Pre 3 and Veer smartphones as well as the TouchPad, all running the innovative WebOS first developed by Palm. But perhaps the biggest announcement came when HP later announced that they are dropping Windows from their PCs and going to ship them with WebOS.
HP will be making both the hardware AND software for its digital computer products—desktops, laptops, smartphones, and tablets. Sounds a lot like another company I know.
But bigger than the fact that HP will be competing directly against Apple (and, importantly, with the same tactics) in all of Apple's biggest markets—the Mac, iPhone, and iPad—what's most interesting to me is the transition of webOS from smartphones to PCs.
The PC operating system has been mired in a series of incremental advancements ever since the original Macintosh. Though OS X and Windows 7 are both infinitely more complex and powerful than Mac OS 1.0, they are still echoing the same tired chords: window and icon-based UIs with a hierarchical and visible file system.
Part of the reason Apple's iOS looks so different from OS X is out of necessity—you can't feasibly run multiple applications onscreen simultaneously on a phone, and file system access would makes things needlessly complex. But Apple has recognized they have some pretty good ideas in iOS that can translate to the desktop which is in dire need of an overhaul. Recently they announced that the next incarnation of OS X—Lion—will adopt many features from iOS which translate well to the desktop. This is a positive step, but at the heart and soul we're still talking about the OS we've known for over 25 years.
HP is doing it differently. They're starting with an operating system designed for smartphones and using THAT as the basis for a desktop-class operating system. WebOS running on a PC won't be like OS X Lion running on a Mac; there won't be any OS relics or legacy technologies that need to be supported to make people happy. WebOS for PCs represents the biggest UI evolution in the PC market since the original Macintosh OS. Just as people knew how to use an iPad from using their iPhones and iPod Touches, people will know how to use a next-gen HP desktop from using their Pres and TouchPads. The paradigms and metaphors, indeed the whole UI on an HP desktop will feel more like using a giant (and really powerful) TouchPad because people won't be upgrading from a current-generation desktop OS. In this sense HP is ahead of Apple, whose OS X updates must still contend with users familiar with Mac OS as it's existed for years. HP has no such baggage with WebOS.
HP is doing exactly what Microsoft and Apple cannot—starting completely from scratch. At the moment, Apple seems best able to match HP, since they've already begun to blur the line between iOS and Mac OS. Microsoft seems to be falling further behind by the day. Sure, Windows is king of the hill right now, but the hill it's on is shrinking, and the fastest-growing hill right now is topped by Apple and Google.
As the PC market continues to shrink, as mass market computers continue to evolve into smaller, more specialized devices, the companies that will benefit will be those that can capture this emerging market. HP has shown it is ready to do just that. And when the PC market dwindles to a small set of machines used only by dedicated professionals (designers, developers, video editors, etc), HP won't have to worry about where it's going to get it's next operating system.