Hewlett-Packard is gearing up to launch the TouchPad tablet this week, but already CEO Leo Apotheker is thinking about what comes next. In an interview with Bloomberg Wednesday, Apotheker said the company is in talks with third parties to license WebOS, the software piloting its mobile devices.
That should certainly raise red flags for Google, which has pinned the future of its mobile business on licensing its Android platform out to hardware makers such as Motorola and Samsung. So far, they've faced little competition in that market—but HP's entry could change that. Indeed, Bloomberg reports that Samsung, which runs Android on its Galaxy Tab, has already held discussions with HP to possibly license WebOS.
But even if HP begins following Google's strategy of licensing out WebOS like Android, don't expect the company to take a similar approach. As HP executives told Fast Company recently, they have no interest in the fragmented Android ecosystem, in which a slew of available versions (Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, etc.) create confusion and incompatibility issues for customers and developers alike.
"If we were to ever venture into doing [WebOS] with someone else's hardware, like our CEO has said recently, it would have to be a partnership," Richard Kerris, VP of worldwide developer relations for WebOS, told me recently. "It would have to be someone that could bring the same kind of experience to the market [as HP]…to just license ourself out to everyone—that is a short-term look at success—it's not a pleasurable experience for the customer, and it's certainly not one for the developers. Now [with Android], developers have to go buy all these devices to test, and nothing is consistent—it just creates this huge, huge dilemma for them."
The HP experience, as Kerris and executive Phil McKinney explained last week, is one where HP controls "the experience end to end." While they've indicated an interest in offering tablets running Windows 8 in the future, HP is unlikely to mimic what McKinney calls the "Wild, Wild West" of Android. "We could see this path where Android was going to run into all these problems because of incompatibility," he said. "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—it starts causing confusion."
The question now is what a licensing "partnership" with HP would entail.