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HP's big plans for a WebOS world

Despite a lot of talk of enterprise software and services during Leo Apotheker's keynote speech Monday, here's why the consumer business still matters--a lot--to HP.

HP CEO Leo Apotheker
HP CEO Leo Apotheker HP

Yesterday's HP Summit was billed as the big coming-out party for Hewlett-Packard's new leader, Leo Apotheker. There weren't any balloons or confetti, but he talked financial outlook, and new businesses he wants to see the company in. They're the kinds of things Wall Street types love to hear.

But while the conversation in consumer technology right now is about whether we're in the "post-PC" era, and in the age of tablets and smartphones, Apotheker spent very little time talking gadgets. A lot of his vision for HP, the world's largest seller of computers, communicated yesterday was centered on enterprise services, and used phrases like big data, the cloud, and real-time analytics. In other words, things a consumer audience generally tunes out.

Given that its new CEO came from the most business-oriented of companies, German software giant SAP, it's not an unreasonable fear that HP might be emphasizing the enterprise side of things over consumer from now on. But if you get past all the buzzwords from Apotheker's speech Monday, HP isn't deemphasizing its consumer products and in fact is saying that it has big plans for them.

HP is the largest producer of computers and printers in the world, as it has been for awhile. But aside from price and some design details, HP's products really aren't all that different from its competitors' hardware. Apotheker didn't have much to say about different laptop or printer models, but he did spend some time talking about these two important businesses in terms of how they integrate with WebOS, the mobile operating system HP acquired with Palm.

Right now, WebOS is available on smartphones, but this summer it will expand to HP's Touchpad tablet. And next year, Apotheker says, we'll see it added to all of the Windows PCs, and some printers, that HP sells. That's a lot of computers--HP sold 60 million PCs last year--but Apotheker is thinking even bigger: He said yesterday that HP is aiming to have WebOS on 100 million devices next year.

Apotheker didn't offer a lot of specifics on how that would happen, but his message was clear: he wants HP to have a unifying software platform across its hardware that will distinguish HP computers from other Windows machines, and printers that stand out from the hundreds of identical-looking ones you see at Best Buy.

Smartphones, tablets, and computers that have a unifying software that easily allows personal data to be transferred between them... sound familiar? It's what distinguishes Apple from its competitors, with iOS, Mac OS, and iTunes.

By taking a page from Apple's playbook, HP is positioning its products to stand out from the other Windows PCs and Android phones of the world.

"If they're going to play in the PC business and devices-for-individuals business, they have to go after this, otherwise they end up as a commodity PC business," said Frank Gillett, analyst with Forrester Research. "I think they've been dying to get their hands on a software platform (like WebOS) for some time. From the beginning, (with acquiring Palm) it was a giant bet for raising profit margins for PCs and individual devices. Otherwise they're in a long, slow grind with a bunch of players who compete on price."

One major emphasis of Apotheker's vision was the so-called HP Cloud. Much of what he talked about had to do with businesses being able to store their data in the cloud, as well as use it to provide services to customers. But what perhaps got glossed over was Apotheker's mention of the "personal cloud" that individuals can access their information from.

We've actually heard about a piece of this just recently from HP. At an event in February to introduce new WebOS phones and the Touchpad tablet, company executives talked about HP Synergy, a service that syncs contacts and calendars across devices. Apotheker didn't emphasize it much Monday, but that's a huge part of why HP wants a unifying piece of software on its PCs, tablets, phones, and printers.

There are services that do this already, but what Apple is doing with MobileMe--essentially a personal cloud that costs $99 a year with 20GB of remote storage--is likely where HP wants to go. Software and services that are tied to HP hardware and that you can't get on any other company's devices is a good way to stand out from the pack.

So despite an emphasis on enterprise stuff, HP really does have big plans for its consumer division, and we'll likely see those plans crystallizing over the rest of the year with the Touchpad going on sale. There's clearly a lot more to come from HP as its chief executive starts to feel more at home in Palo Alto, Calif., and begins to get down to business. In his speech, Apotheker communicated really bold goals, which he needed to do. That helps convince investors and potential customers that HP is not just another Windows PC maker competing on price, and that as big (and sometimes as conservative) as HP is, it's not out of touch with technology trends.

"It's very ambitious," said Gillett. "But this is the sort of thing you do if you want to break out of a tough price competitive business that others are defining."