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HP Talks App Strategy, Box.net Acquisition, And Zigging When Apple Zags

HP believes WebOS is a more open environment; that it will be less fragmented than Android; that it’s an easier and more scalable platform to develop on; and, most significantly, HP promises they won’t start co-opting apps, like some competitors out there…

HP Talks App Strategy, Box.net Acquisition, And Zigging When Apple Zags
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The reviews for HP’s TouchPad are in, and we have a consensus: It mimics the iPad well but is not yet a proper replacement; WebOS is sexy but not yet perfect or fully mature; the TouchPad is a solid but late entry to the tablet market; and where are the apps? This last point is most important. Only a day after reviewers skewered HP for offering just 300 TouchPad apps at launch, Apple hit 100,000 apps on the iPad.

Undoubtedly, HP has a lot of catching up to do. HP executives have argued that it’s still far too early in the game to declare a winner. “Let everybody else say, ‘You guys are too late–there are already hundreds of thousands of apps,'” Richard Kerris, a top exec on the WebOS team, told Fast Company recently. “Yeah? Well, so what? We’re in the very, very early stages here, and we have the environment that was built for this stuff.”

Environment is the backbone of HP’s app strategy. HP says WebOS is a more open environment–unlike Apple, they welcome jailbreaking, for example. They believe WebOS will be less fragmented than Android–that it’s an easier and more scalable platform to develop on. And, most significantly, HP promises they won’t start co-opting apps, like some competitors out there.

Earlier this month, Steve Jobs unveiled the new features of iOS 5–and for many developers, the announcement came as a shock. Many of the features overlapped with already popular apps–from cloud services to mail clients to notification systems to group messaging apps. When Apple announced the feature called “Reading List,” which lets you save articles to read later, Instapaper founder Marco Arment tweeted just one word: “Shit.”

That’s a sentiment HP execs believe developers on its platform will never feel. “What’s the developer opportunity that we can present out there? From our point of view, we should go for choice,” Kerris says. “In one world,” he adds, referring to Apple’s, “it’s our way or the highway. In the other world, it’s what world do you want–we want to be in the latter.”

Kerris says HP will provide the basics–email service and a few other common clients. But he’s not interested is going too far beyond that. With Apple’s iCloud, for example, a service that enables users to store files in the cloud for free, many feel that Apple is stepping on the toes of startups such as Box.net and Dropbox. “We shouldn’t limit people to, ‘Okay, now you have to use our cloud.’ Our goal is always to provide as much flexibility as possible because a lot of people have existing accounts with these things,” Kerris says. “I think shutting them off is something that makes them go, ‘Well wait a minute, why are you telling me what to do?'”

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HP may have even considered acquiring Box.net but ultimately didn’t want to poison the open ecosystem. “I’ll tell you, the Box.net people are impressive–really impressive–the solution just works,” says Phil McKinney, president and CTO of HP’s personal systems group (perhaps unintentionally echoing a favorite Steve Jobs mantra). “Then our choice was: ‘Well, do I acquire them?’ That’s somewhat interesting. But to be quite honest, if we acquired them, we’d probably screw it up. What value and contribution can we make? That versus saying, ‘Hey, you guys do some interesting work, how do we work better together? How do we give you some additional leverage on our platform?'”

“We always look at different things that are out there [in terms of acquisitions], but we also look at what happens to the others in the space if we do that,” Kerris says. “When certain companies buy one [startup], they alienate the others. We’re not sure we what to do that. When we’re looking at acquisition strategies, it’s how can we help the customer and the developers.”

[Image: Flickr user nebarnix]

Read More: Most Creative People 2011: Aaron Levie/ Box.net

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About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.

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