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TouchPad HP tossed its hat into the booming tablet computer market yesterday with the HP TouchPad. But the entry is more of a throwback to the Hewlett-Packard that made the HP 3000 a success. There are challenges to overcome for this worthy competitor to Apple's iPad, barriers that will sound familiar to owners of MPE/iX systems.

The 3000 is stamped with its OS brand, an indelible marker of what kind of apps could make it productive. The new TouchPad, whose name includes parts of two door-busting products from Apple, will try to cross the gap of the same kind of different brand. The TouchPad's heart beats with webOS, just as the 3000 lives and dies on MPE/iX and IMAGE. HP will have to succeed in the app business to make the TouchPad more than another technology that sparkled until the market ignored it into a niche.

As a user of the iPad since Day One, I can report the best aspect of this tablet is its array of apps. There are 60,000 available today, about one year since Apple first shipped a Software Developer's Kit for that tablet's iOS. The apps are vetted and controlled by Apple, although there are outland apps you can use if you're willing to "root" reconfigure your iPad.

This kind of success (14 million iPads sold in less than a year) with a different product requires two elements: A control of hardware and OS by a single maker. (There's no PC in the world that can sing that duet.) Plus, shining technology that makes design dreams for the product take precedence over engineering conveniences. HP's got engineers as good as Apple's, just as it could out-develop Digital or IBM for enterprise servers.

But even that advantage wasn't enough to extend the life of the 3000 in HP's product lineup. The product needed HP's vision, amplified in marketing, to lure and retain apps. What's left today are the customers' talents to maintain their own programs, plus the tricks needed to integrate modern tech.  That amounts to an ability to reconfigure the 3000 -- to "root" it -- to keep the server in service around the world. The 3000 needs tech expertise just like steering the Android tablets will demand to make them production workhorses. That's whenever we see a true non-iPad tablet go on sale, of course. HP's gone public with its push of an innovative OS, but the TouchPad goes on sale many months from now, in summer. That gap could be fatal, just like an HP delay killed off hope for its 3000 business.

HP could never spark the application fire it needed to keep selling the 3000 into the largest of enterprises. And that's the only kind of sale HP was interested in winning during the last 10 years it sold the server. After teases with SAP and Oracle's apps, the app makers settled on operating systems not invented at HP. Unix at first, Windows to follow for HP, none of it under HP's control. When it innovated, it made Unix more different, which didn't appeal to Unix software developers. HP's turn away from its OS genius to Windows meant MPE/iX could never rise above the niche HP carved for the solution. HP-UX moves more in that direction each day; witness the failure of the OS to keep Ecometry selling HP's servers. Windows rules that retail solution.

webOS looks as supple and advanced as MPE/iX appeared in those turbulent 1990s. The OS is the first HP has crafted since HP-UX, which after all was released in the years beyond MPE's introduction. Hewlett-Packard used to be in the whole-solution business. Even after it stopped selling apps -- just as HP is providing bedrock apps for the TouchPad -- the company was in charge of both hardware and software. Unlike the Android competition for the TouchPad, there's only one place you'll need to go for an update to the OS. HP is the single source for advances, just as it was for MPE when the company was improving its value and flexibility.

The trouble ahead for the TouchPad will sound familiar to the 3000 owner who's been searching for apps to replace MPE programs, either to improve homesteading (before we called that stability "homesteading") or to migrate. The momentum of the app developers follows the Apple and Android tablet markets today. Apple defined the market and will never drop below a 35 percent share, with very high profits. Android will take a similar share in devices, but it's going to suffer under the same Windows morass: multiple versions, where the owner must take responsibility for updates and viral protection.

The hardware on the TouchPad looks like all the right choices to compete with the elegant and efficient iPad. HP's built high-horsepower, slick display, ample RAM and strong peripherals into the unit. In some of those categories, for now, the TouchPad outshines the iPad. There's even a dazzling detail where you can take a webOS phone (Palm's Pre) and tap it onto the TouchPad to continue reading a web page on the tablet.

By the time HP ships its hardware, however, Apple will have stolen the march on nearly all of those advantages. Like Apple, HP won't have a 3G tablet at first release. In this situation, the HP 3000 owner will hear the echo of 1999-2001, when the PCI-based N-Class and A-Class servers couldn't enter the market, because HP's prime focus was on Y2K fixes. For a division stripped down off its MPE/XL development heights, there were not enough bodies and budget on hand to ship off PCI servers plus stay even with OS innovations.

Hewlett-Packard is one of the few companies in the world that can step into the tablet market with the total package of superior hardware and innovative software. But you can look to the app count to determine the relevance of the TouchPad, just as HP defined its 3000 fate by its failure to spark MPE apps. This time around, webOS will have a budget that would have created 10 HP 3000 divisions. It enters a market with 10 times as many high-grade apps as webOS can claim, however, even by a summer release. Following the software is the best trail to track toward a relevant future of an HP computer. Here's a place where the new CEO, coming from SAP, could change HP's history.