On Monday, HP's new CEO Leo Apotheker will spin stories for the press about the new HP. He will doubtless make many references to webOS while explaining Hewlett-Packard intends to regain its soul by pursuing such projects. The March 14 event will be widely reported as a breakthough for HP's software business, if Apotheker is lucky.
But webOS, first pumped up in early February and at the very top of Apotheker's Q1 comments later in the month, can mean so much more. Especially to the 3000 site which wants to bet HP can continue to create software as unique as MPE/iX, a breed apart.
HP made waves last month with this Web operating system splash, but these were ripples that some 3000 vets squelched quickly. The responses might be premature reactions to webOS initiatives. Launching something different, designed inside HP, is an element of capitalism that’s been in short supply in HP’s world.
No matter how slick the TouchPad (above) looks while it carries webOS into the enterprise, you can’t blame the observers in our market for being skeptical about the effort. HP has often failed at software. Its last attempt to break ground in OS software was NewWave. NewWave was technology ahead of its time. But you will be able look to today's Web to find any reasons to believe in webOS: partners to join the effort. HP says its putting webOS on PCs during 2012, on top of Windows. NewWave offered the same spread on Microsoft's OS. HP wanted app developers to work with objects in 1989. It laid out the basics of the architecture that year in several HP Journal articles (PDF of the issue), hoping to attract industry adoption and partnership. (This may have been the only time in HP's history the company devoted an entire issue of the Journal to one software product. If there's a time when HP's heart thumped with software, the late '80s would be its most soulful period. MPE's new 32-bit version was just taking hold. HP was pushing open systems with HP-UX environments.)
For webOS, the product that was part of Palm when HP bought the company, HP’s also got to gather app partners to give the OS any market share that can be taken seriously. This OS is important to any 3000 customer who continues to invest in Hewlett-Packard’s technology after leaving MPE/iX.
The HP tech in Windows hardware, the ProLiant line, succeeds with innovation in power control and virtualization. However, HP’s enterprise-level software technology will matter more to the migrating 3000 customer. To retain the involvement with the application community — builders of apps — HP-UX is going to need OS innovation on a par with webOS and HP's new TouchPad tablets.
Better technology is only the first step of HP’s extension of webOS. With Apple and Google staking out big chunks of the mobile market already, HP’s got to lead a parade for third parties to adopt webOS as one of their platforms. HP’s failure in this kind of software push, NewWave of 1988, promised to be such an advanced user environment on top of an MS-DOS. HP wants the same kind of role for webOS. But HP couldn’t get past the Microsoft momentum during the 1980s.
Before long, Microsoft started to open up its Windows, and attracting app partners was a game HP lost quickly. NewWave was designed to take the place of HP’s Deskmanager office suite. It turned out that a world of third parties were essential to the solution the market needed. HP used to do unique OS technology as part of its pedigree and DNA. The webOS work might point to a return to that advantage — the kind that could retain a company in the HP customer fold.
For any platform, it’s all about the apps. The HP 3000 succeeded for HP in an era when crafting your own targeted in-house app was not unusual. When the era of the business computer got its tinted Windows, rolling your own wouldn’t yield more sales to that wider field of business customers. HP had to win app converts for the 3000 from big third parties during the mid-90s, and HP didn’t succeed. It paid for ports, it tried to snare Internet mindshare for smaller business (thus the e in e3000). It even bought a software company in the airline field, so it could sell an ISP (cloud) solution.
As easy as it is to snicker at a contender, it’s in the 3000 market’s best interests for webOS to succeed. Innovation needs to be encouraged at this vendor that has commoditized its OS business growth. If not, leaving operating environments to third parties eliminates another advantage HP can offer to keep its entperprise customers happy and productive.