HP’s £1.2 billion buyout of Palm has been greeted with joy among hardcore tech types and mobile fanatics. And with good reason. It’s not too extreme to say that Palm has been on its knees in the last few months. HP’s move now means not only will it continue to survive, but also potentially flourish, as webOS is finally able to break out from its shackles and rock up in more than a couple of well-received handsets.
webOS has been rightly talked up as a great rival to both Google’s Android platform and Apple’s iPhone OS. It’s brilliantly intuitive, responds well to touchscreen swipes and bests a slew of lesser smartphone operating systems. But Palm’s inability to get it into devices beyond the Pre and the Pixi, as well as failing to push out updates concurrently across the globe, has hampered its penetration. While Google marches on and Apple’s sales figures reach eye-watering numbers, Palm has been left to look on from the sidelines.
But signs of a Palm resurgence are now looking good, with webOS set for a starring role in the tech world in the coming years. There’s now talk of it landing in tablets, as well as phones, inevitably stoked by talk of HP’s Slate being cancelled. “We’ll see two things,” says Chris Hazelton, an analyst of The 451 Group. “More webOS smartphones beyond Pre and Pixi, which will be good for Palm and also webOS based tablets from HP in place of Windows 7. webOS is a touch screen OS, while Windows 7 is primarily mouse-driven with some touch aspects and has almost the same issues that Windows Mobile 6.5 has. On the surface it is touch, but when you drill down you need a stylus.”
Tablets will be a huge deal. webOS is the only proper prod-able OS capable of rivalling the iPad, with other players reliant on Microsoft’s tech to get their kit out into the wild. But what about new phones? Hazelton sounds a note of caution about getting excited now about new mobiles from Palm. “Palm has new smartphone models, but they have likely been delayed as carriers, its primary sales channel, have been concerned about the company’s future. With HP backing the company, this concern is muted somewhat, but Palm devices still face an uphill battle against upcoming smartphones from Apple, BlackBerry, as well as Google Android devices.”
There’s no doubting that this struggle will be even greater as the new iPhone 4G hoves into view and Google prepares for another surge of Android devices. But HP is desperate to succeed in the smartphone space and will stop at nothing to spread webOS’ skills further and wider. This is dependent, of course, on the deal being finalised. “The deal still needs to be approved,” says Hazelton. “I would hope that it will close quickly, as it is best that Palm is kept as a separate company with webOS leveraged by HP as needed. This will let Palm concentrate on smartphones, a market that HP has done poorly in.”
It’ll be a while until we see webOS in new phones. But make no mistake: this deal puts Palm right back at the top table. Google and Apple, make sure you’re looking over your shoulder.