Richard Kerris, the former Apple exec, is gliding through his presentation of HP's TouchPad. As the current VP of worldwide developer relations for WebOS, the slick software giving life to HP's latest mobile devices, Kerris is giddily running through the tablet's bells and whistles: the design, the partnerships, the apps, the engineering. But suddenly our discussion is interrupted by the sound of woodwinds, dancing up the scale.
The sound is familiar. It's the iPhone's classic marimba ringtone. Only it's not a song in the distance—it's coming from my pocket.
"That's a ring I don't like to hear," Kerris immediately says, jokingly. "Give me that [iPhone]!"
Marimba or no marimba, there's no doubt Apple is on the mind of Kerris, and every other exec at HP for that matter. With more than 14 million iPads sold in 2010, Apple has left behind every competitor—from Google to RIM to Microsoft—coughing up dust. But with the TouchPad, the culmination thus far of HP's $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm, the world's largest technology company by revenue hopes it can finally offer a formidable opponent to Apple, the world's largest technology company by market cap, in the race for tablet dominance. And as anyone at HP will tell you, the race is far from finished.
"The industry will ship between 500 million to 600 million PCs next year. What did [the industry] sell in pads, 14 million?" says Phil McKinney, president and CTO of HP's personal systems group. "Everyone's trying to make it seem the conclusion has been decided. We're still in the top of the first inning."
"People ask, 'How can you guys compete?'" Kerris says. "I'm not much of a baseball person, but I always say that the first person up at bat can never hit a grand slam."
Ironically, in order to compete with Apple, HP is taking a page from Apple's playbook. Steve Jobs's strategy has always been to control both the hardware and the software it runs on. While other PC makers, including HP, have relied on Windows, Apple's Macs have always come with Mac OS, an operating system designed specifically for its hardware. Apple has followed the same approach when expanding to the iPhone and iPad with iOS. "Everyone is figuring out that if you want to survive, you really want to control the experience end to end," McKinney says. "The ability to control both the hardware platform and OS is absolutely critical."
Beside RIM, whose BlackBerry PlayBook runs on its own unique OS, nearly all tablet makers have outsourced their software to Google. Motorola's Xoom, Toshiba's Thrive, Samsung's Galaxy Tab—they all run on Android, an operating system developed by Google.
HP had no interest in leaving so much of its fate in the hands of a third party. It's why the company acquired Palm, which helped develop the TouchPad's WebOS. "We felt we needed to control our own destiny," says McKinney, "and we could see this path where Android was going to run into all these problems because of incompatibility. It's the Wild, Wild West: Everybody gets Android and they do something strange with it—really mush it up." In other words, with myriad versions of Android available (including, based alphabetically on names of desserts: Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, and soon, Ice Cream Sandwich), Android has become a fragmented ecosystem, as many critics argue. "Now an app only runs on this version of Android, and only on this screen size, but not on this version of Android with this size screen," McKinney adds. "It starts causing confusion."
"There's a lot of developers on Android that are saying it's fragmented, confusing—that they don't know which end is up," Kerris says.
Will HP ever consider selling an Android-based tablet?
"We don't do Android," McKinney says, flat out.
"I don't see why we would," Kerris explains. "Just because McDonald's sells a billion hamburgers, doesn't mean we want to go into that business if we're a restaurant. We have a better solution with WebOS. Let's go after the RIMs and the Androids. We have a strong play there: a better UI that's more consistent."
Still, despite the enthusiasm of executives, HP has a long way to go if it ever hopes to catch up with Apple and Android. A recent Gartner study estimates Apple will control roughly 70% of the tablet market by the end of 2011, while Android will grow to a 20% share. Their greatest advantage over HP? Apps. Apple boasts 400,000 apps; Android's Marketplace has around 300,000.
HP's WebOS, on the other hand, will feature only a few thousand apps at launch on July 1, with just hundreds designed specifically for the tablet itself. "Let me be clear: For TouchPad apps, we'll have a little more than 300 at launch that are written just for the TouchPad—quite honestly, Honeycomb doesn't even have the numbers that we'll have to start," Kerris says.
"Look, three years ago, there were no apps on any of the platforms. Developers can now come up with an idea and implement it in a matter of months," he continues. "There's hundreds of thousands of apps on the iPad platform. That's great—a good percentage of those guys are going to want to come over to the HP platform. Why wouldn't they? We're HP. We're going to ship a lot of units—that's inevitable. We're an easy investment. Most of the developers that are on the iOS platform can have their apps up and running here in a matter of days."
Kerris and McKinney believe WebOS, which Kerris calls the "only OS that's built from the ground up for the Web," will offer developers an open and flexible environment, more scalable and appealing than other operating systems. "Our whole belief is that the entire experience is going to go to HTML5," McKinney explains. "You won't need anything funky—if you develop an application, you know what your test platform is? Any HTML5 browser. It gives a footprint in size and scale to make [WebOS] attractive to app developers."
"On one hand, you have a beautiful product, but it's a walled garden," says Kerris, referring to Apple's iPad and iOS. "On the other hand, you have a plethora of products. Somewhere in the middle we can have a great impact—we offer a happy medium."
My conversation with Kerris begins to wind down. Soon he'll hand me the TouchPad that I've been playing with now for the past week.
Before leaving, I ask him how his time at Apple has influenced his experience at HP. "When I was at Apple, it was during the whole emergence of OS X out of OS 9," Kerris says. "When we launched, it didn't have Microsoft, it didn't have Adobe, it didn't have Quark. All the naysayers said, 'There's no way—it's over, Apple.' And it's certainly not."
"Yes, we have a huge challenge," he continues, shifting his thoughts back to HP. "But in my eyes, it's fun to be the underdog, especially when you believe in the products so much. Let everybody else say, 'You guys are too late—there are already hundreds of thousands of apps.' Yeah? Well, so what? We're in the very, very early stages here, and we have the environment that was built for this stuff."
My iPhone, which rang several times during our meeting, was finally set to silent.