How well the new WebOS-powered devices that HP launched Wednesday will do in the marketplace remains to be seen. But underlying the various features and bells and whistles HP rolled out were two main themes that point to the direction tablets are going–themes that are worth keeping in mind as we watch the evolution of mobile in the months and years to come.
Our devices will one day be nothing more than portals
HP execs demonstrated how activity on one device–a smartphone, for example–could easily be routed to another device, such as the tablet. It makes sense: You use your smartphone at work, but you like to futz with your tablet at home. Shouldn’t it be easy to route activity and content from one to the other, so that you can work on your work (or play with your games), no matter what physical device you happen to be holding at one particular time?
This is the premise behind moving the computing to the cloud, of course. The vision of the future involves moving away from the idea that you use different devices for different purposes and toward the idea that all devices can perform the same functions, and you simply use different devices depending on what context you’re in (sitting at your desk, traveling on the subway, kicking back on your couch).
But putting stuff in the cloud is only one half of making that vision work. The other half is having a toolset designed for that configuration. Toward the very end of the HP presentation, the company announced that it wasn’t simply putting WebOS on its new phones and tablet. It also plans to put it on PCs. The company declined to say anything more than that, but that declaration alone presaged a vision of the future in which all devices, including the old laptop workhorse, more or less need to operate the same way, so that they one day can indeed be interchangeable.
We’ll be using tablets for work
When the iPad was launched, it was mainly seen as an entertainment device. Something to watch movies on during long flights. For reading books and magazines, surfing the Web, or playing games. Increasingly, however, the tablet has been worming its way into the world of work. Industries from hospitals to casinos are finding ways to use the devices to expedite their workflows. And it’s hard to go to a conference these days without seeing a significant chunk of people who left their laptops at the office and simply brought the iPad instead.
HP seems to have recognized that and embraced the phenomenon wholeheartedly. It announced Wednesday that users will be able to work with Microsoft Word and Excel documents on the new TouchPad, with the intention of eventually including a full version of Microsoft Office. The device also comes with VPN support so that users can access private office networks. Also announced were a convenient stand and external keyboard so users can effectively interact with their tablet the same way they would with a laptop.
Wednesday, HP’s executive vice president of the personal systems group, Todd Bradley, called the new WebOS-powered devices “building blocks” in a “long-term strategy.” If so, it seems they view the future as one of interconnected machines that you use as easily for work as for home. That’s a vision that others have articulated as well. While the market will render its verdict on this first stab at realizing this vision, if HP is able to execute well, it could have a chance of eventually catching up with the iOS and Android juggernaut.
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E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com’s SiliconValley reporter. Email.