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Q&A: HP's 'gadget guy' on no-compromise devices

Phil McKinney, CTO of Hewlett-Packard's personal systems group, is focused on creating a device that will offer the richness of a giant LCD TV with the reach of a mobile phone.

Pouring water from a pitcher into a glass is not just about transferring liquid from one container to another--at least not to Phil McKinney.

Phil McKinney HP

To the chief technology officer of Hewlett-Packard's personal systems group, it represents the challenge of doing the same with data. McKinney oversees research into the concept of "liquid media," in which data can be easily and effectively moved between different types of devices--in a way that is intelligent enough to tap the capabilities of each platform.

Known in HP as "the gadget guy," McKinney spoke with ZNet Asia on the sidelines of an HP media event on workstation technology. He discussed innovations for personal devices and why it "makes no sense" for HP to develop its own operating system.

Q: What area of your research focus is most challenging?
McKinney: The most challenging really would fall into the mobility and the economics--they are somewhat dependent on each other. If I can deliver a very compelling device that you can always carry with you and (that) gives you the most powerful PC experience--you're always connected and it's fairly simple to use--then I've hit the grand slam home run. But there are certain trade-offs you make--screen size, keyboard, input method, battery life, and connectivity.

Devices today are always some kind of a compromised device--never...perfect. I want a big screen, but it weighs too much. I want 50 hours of battery life, but I can't pick up the battery. Ultimately, it's how do you build a device that requires the user not to have to make any compromise.

Do you believe that will become a reality one day?
McKinney: The way we think about devices is...a chart, where the horizontal axis is what we call reach or mobility--size, shape, and battery life of a device. The vertical axis is richness--how rich an experience can you get, (factors such as) screen, color, video, and audio. On the upper-left corner (of the chart), you have the 50-inch LCD TV sets. On the (other extreme), you put a basic mobile phone. Now draw a line going from the TV down to the mobile phone, and there's a tradeoff between richness and reach. I'm giving up a little bit of richness (by changing) to a desktop...Then you move to the laptop and the (mini-notebook) and the smartphones. You're giving up richness for reach, and that's always a trade-off.

The ultimate objective is you want to get to the upper-right corner--ultimate reach, ultimate richness. There's got to be some fundamental breakthroughs to really make that happen. How do you get screens that can unfold, so I start out with a 3-inch screen but I can fold that out to a 30-inch so I can lay on a tabletop--those kinds of things.

Do you see current innovation for laptops as being skewed toward Netbooks?
McKinney: When we think about the mini-note or Netbook, depending on what term you want to use, we truly see it as a companion product. So it's not a situation where the mini-note is a replacement for an existing category. Prior to the mini-note's existence, people have a laptop and there's always this trade-off...(You want) higher performance and the ability to be mobile, but it's too heavy. And you couldn't afford to buy two notebooks to get you both options. But with the mini coming in, I can choose two different products solving two very different needs.

We think of the mini-note as really a step up from the smartphone--it's really that device that allows you to do things you can't do on your smartphone. For instance, I get e-mail on my phone, and certain e-mail (messages) that I read, I go "Hmm, that's going to be a long reply." So I'm going to wait till I get back to my PC to reply. Now with the mini-note, since it's small and light enough I carry with me most of the time, I can now simply crank up a reply.

There's a logical gap between the form factors, what we call "tweener" products--(such as) between a smartphone and between a laptop. There's an opportunity for lots of form factors and capabilities. These are the devices that are very user-specific--what's the function they are going to use (for or) what's their job. Are they simply (looking for) something that gives them a great browsing experience versus somebody that needs to run a number of applications.

There's a gap when you think about that dichotomy or range of form factors. The mini-notes or Netbooks are trying to be the first (to fill that gap) in their category. But we would anticipate there's going to be a whole variety of other kinds of form factors that are filling that space.

What are the chances of HP developing its own Netbook OS? There was a recent report about the company putting a customized Ubuntu version for the HP Mini 1000 Mi edition.
McKinney: (Laughs) I lost count of how many times I got asked that question.

When you think about...the amount of R&D, take for instance, Microsoft has put in over the life of the Windows operating system, there aren't many companies that can come out and fund that kind of an R&D level necessary. For HP, it's not about controlling all the pieces. It's about enabling the drive innovation that matter to our customers.

In this case, we've got a phenomenal track record of working very well with (partners like) Microsoft. We delivered touch technology in the form of a TouchSmart product two years ago, and then worked with Microsoft on touch enablement for Windows 7...on the development of the capabilities and validating them. If Microsoft funds that R&D and puts those capabilities onto the base operating system, that's great, because now I'm going to refocus my touch R&D onto that user experience that sits on top of the operating system.

So, no, there's no interest in us creating our own operating system.

Nothing is compelling enough?
McKinney: Never say never, but let's put it this way. There's no interest today in developing our own operating system--it makes no sense given the amount of R&D.

Vivian Yeo of ZDNet Asia reported from Los Angeles.