What HP really bought from Palm: A mobile future, untethered from Microsoft

February 9, 2011: 3:41 PM ET

The Touchpad, not reliant on Android, Windows or (of course) iOS, is a sign that HP demands to be taken seriously as a software company.

The Palm Touchpad from HP

The Palm Touchpad from HP

Yes, HP (HPQ) has now jumped into the tablet fray with its TouchPad.  It's a whiz-bang cool gadget, and some folks will want to rush out and buy it.  Are we talking iPad numbers? Not likely, but whether HP sells as many of its flavor of tablets  in this first outing isn't perhaps as important as HP finally wrenching its destiny away from Microsoft (MSFT) and placing it in its own hands.

Let's be very clear, the competition is Apple (AAPL), but those hardware companies  who would take on  the gang from Cupertino, HP among them,  have one huge disadvantage, they don't really do software.  Apple's success has shown that designing a device requires careful thought in multiple disciplines. Apple does a better job of cramming more hardware goodness, and software magic into a  beautiful gadget that runs faster and leaner than anyone. Apple does it so well, because as opposed to every other company in Silicon Valley, it has made software a priority.

What HP did when it dropped $1.2 billion on Palm, was signal that software is finally front and center for the largest  PC company on the planet. It could have relied on Google (GOOG) and its Android operating system for mobile devices, or waited for Microsoft to bring something new and nifty to the party. Instead it  decided to go it alone, or rather rely on Jon Rubinstein and his Palm webOS team.

The launch of the TouchPad Wednesday in  San Francisco, along with and a slew of new  webOS smart phones coming this spring and summer,  are HP's first efforts at becoming a force in mobile, and more broadly a force in software. It's the company's first step toward building, as HP's Consumer Applications head Steven MacArthur told the gathering of analysts and press, "the largest install base of connected users in the world."

In some sense that was what Rubinstein was trying to do when he took over the reins of a failing Palm. When Palm launched its Pre  smartphone two year ago, it was rightly praised as one of the sweetest  new hunks of electronics to come along in some time.  What Palm lacked then was the muscle, -- that is, money -- to get its innovative webOS into enough hands to become credible player. HP gives webOS the brawn it needs to push webOS out across hundreds of thousands of devices, ultimately millions if they are to compete with Apple and Android. So the question is, can the TouchPad and webOS compete? Will consumers and business users alike make room for another operating system?

The short answer is, you should give it a chance. Rubinstein and his crew have made a stunning OS. It plays well with everything you already use, and adds its own slick design that folks ought to like. And even if you don't voluntarily seek out a webOS device, there is a good chance there will be one coming to you soon. At the very end of the (overly) long presentation, HP's Todd Bradley announced, not surprisingly, that HP would be deploying elements of webOS in its PCs starting later this year.  "All together that's 100 million devices with webOS deployed annually," Bradley said.  "That's the start of something pretty big.'

It has to be. It's the start of HP's future as a credible software company, and if they are going to have a shot  at prying folks loose from Apple, Google and even Microsoft, the largest PC company in the world has to go as big as it can.

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About This Author
Michael Copeland
Michael Copeland

Michael V. Copeland joined FORTUNE as a senior writer in September 2007. Copeland has covered everything from electric cars to e-readers. He is a creator of Tech Mate, an irreverent video series in which he debates (and skewers) digital issues of the day. Before joining FORTUNE, Copeland was a senior writer at Business 2.0. Copeland graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.

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