Wednesday, 30 March 2011

HP webOS Decision Not Exactly Doom for Microsoft

Hewlett-Packard apparently plans to ship PCs capable of running the company's recently acquired webOS, according to a March 9 Bloomberg report.

That article quotes HP CEO Leo Apotheker as saying the move would create "a massive platform" and help differentiate the company's broad family of products from its rivals. HP's webOS PCs will apparently dual-boot with Windows.

If you listen to some of the pundits' reactions, the bell may be readying to toll for Microsoft and Windows.

Galen Gruman over at InfoWorld is calling HP's move the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. "I fully expect all the dark mutterings I've been hearing off the record about Microsoft's rudderless mobile efforts and lack of interest in a new version of Windows will go public," he wrote March 10, before suggesting those frustrations represent "an eerie parallel" to "what's happening in North Africa and the Middle East today."

Yep, because Microsoft totally equates with what's going on in Libya right now.

Meanwhile, Betanews' Joe Wilcox also decided it was time to start singing the doom song, albeit in a somewhat more moderated way: "If HP's WebOS strategy plays out - and surely that means someday shipping only its OS rather than paying Windows license fees - Microsoft will lose revenues and its most important strategic partner."

Let's take a nice deep breath, boil a cup of soothing tea, and remember that Microsoft's position in the operating-system market is deeply entrenched. The latest Net Applications data pegs Windows' market-share at 89.69 percent. By comparison, and despite its position as America's arguably most white-hot company (aside from Facebook), Apple's hold on that market totals 5.19 percent (its iOS franchise holds 1.81 percent of that same market, if you aggregate PC operating systems in with mobile ones).

Even if HP manages to execute on its plan to bring webOS to all its PCs, and even if it persuades developers to design a massive portfolio of useful and fun applications for the platform, and even if consumers and IT pros overcome any natural hesitation in embracing new and relatively unknown, and even if webOS manages to integrate a whole host of legacy applications without requiring users to switch over to Windows, it's unlikely that it'll erode Microsoft's market-share in any appreciable way, especially considering that HP is keeping the Windows option as a dual-boot.

Think of it this way: Microsoft's Windows Vista crashed and burned. It drove any number of users (yours truly included) to break with their years-long adherence to the Windows platform and embrace the Mac. And yet despite that flub, and despite Apple's rosy presence in consumers' minds, Apple has failed to make major inroads into Microsoft's laptop and desktop hegemony. You can argue that Apple's pursuing a different strategy, and that its Macs' price points exclude the substantial majority of consumers want a cheap device for Word processing and Web cruising. In broad and basic strokes, though, the failure of an alternative operating system to gain any sort of traction, even in the midst of Microsoft's fiasco, speaks to consumers' ingrained tendency to pursue the familiar.

Google's Chrome OS also has designs on a portion of the traditional OS space, embracing the new paradigm of the cloud-based model. But there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of buzz around its chances at becoming a dominant platform.

HP's position as one of the world's largest hardware manufacturers guarantees there'll be some adoption. And the company's push into smartphones and tablets also running webOS means that, at least in the short term, it has a chance of becoming a viable, multi-platform "post PC" competitor to both Google and Apple.

But Microsoft's had many years to dig in with its Windows franchise. And considering how Windows remains one of the company's prime revenue generators, as its cloud initiatives continue to draw no revenue and its smartphones struggle for adoption among consumers, Microsoft will spare no expense in ensuring there's not even the perception of erosion in its market-share. As the Mexican Army learned with the Alamo, there are very serious consequences in trying to fight someone with their back to a wall.

Personally, I applaud HP's move. I have no idea how an operating system built for a smartphone will work on a PC, but I've always liked webOS, and I think competition is good for everyone in a particular market. But until HP announces it'll dump Windows entirely, I wouldn't toll the bell for Microsoft quite yet.

Instead, Microsoft should be more concerned about how its "next version of Windows" will port onto tablets and other form-factors. Mobility is now in the driver's seat, when it comes to dictating future products and strategy. Both HP and Microsoft would do well to remember that.



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