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HP's new WebOS chief wants to hit the ground running

HP executive Stephen DeWitt is tasked with breaking into a market dominated by Apple and Google.

Hewlett-Packard is banking that its newly named WebOS chief, Stephen DeWitt, can tap into his start-up roots as he goes after the likes of Apple and Google with the company's fledgling mobile-device business.

Stephen DeWitt, the new head of Hewlett-Packard's WebOS business. Hewlett-Packard

DeWitt, who was named to his new position yesterday, will be busy with more than just the "official launch" of WebOS on July 17. He will also be responsible for convincing consumers that its TouchPad tablet is worth a look and that developers should start creating applications for his platform.

"There are a lot of priorities," he said in an interview with CNET. "We have a lot to do."

WebOS represents a huge gamble for HP, which opted to forgo the popular Google Android operating system and acquire Palm for $1.2 billion to get its proprietary mobile platform. HP is hoping to succeed where Palm has failed: getting consumers to recognize the benefits of its operating system, which saw critical success but commercial struggles.

DeWitt acknowledged that HP is late to the mobile game, but he isn't willing to dwell on that point, eagerly embracing the upstart role that is unusual for a company used to dominating in personal computers and enterprise IT equipment.

"We've got to get out in the market," he said. "We have to learn and react and expand. That's the model here."

HP has the Veer smartphone in the market already, although that has made little impression with consumers. The company has its ambitions pinned on the TouchPad as the true showcase for the abilities found on WebOS. The company has invested time and manpower toward ensuring that its retail partners are properly trained to talk about the tablet.

"Clearly we need to educate people and inform people that the products that run WebOS are out," DeWitt said.

The TouchPad is launching with more than 300 native applications, which DeWitt notes is a higher number than the applications available for the iPad and Android tablet launches.

"Inspiring the app community is a huge part," he said.

DeWitt said HP is going to redouble its efforts to support the developer community. That includes bringing financial, engineering, and marketing resources. However, he was reluctant to say HP would pay developers for apps, but said he was open to models such as discounts on intellectual property, as well as direct investment if the situation calls for it.

The expansion of WebOS to include PCs, printers, and other connected devices should increase the potential base for which developers can create programs, DeWitt said.

Outgoing WebOS head Jon Rubinstein took a more holistic role of ensuring that WebOS will work properly on all of HP's other products.

"This will create a huge universe for our developers to play in," DeWitt said.

Also important is the early customer experience. HP has set up a "bat line to the WebOS team" with Butler, which DeWitt describes as a concierge service set up to handle any questions or problems with the TouchPad. Butler comes free for 90 days.

Taking a cue from his rivals at Apple, DeWitt said, "We want that first 30 days to be magical."

But HP will need more than similar words to best Apple and its dominant iPad. HP faces significant challenges in overcoming the rhetoric monopolized by Apple and Android. In addition, the TouchPad has suffered from mixed early reviews. Research in Motion's PlayBook tablet, for instance, was lambasted and hasn't fared so well. Even the early Android tablets, despite the hype, have shown a lack of breakout hits.

DeWitt has some experience going up against the giants, although little of that experience is in the mobile side. He led the development of start-ups including Cobalt Networks, which created low-cost Linux-based servers and was ultimately acquired by Sun Microsystems for $2 billion, and computer appliance manufacturer Azul Systems.

DeWitt joined HP in 2008 to run the company's personal systems group in the Americas region. He said he brings the experience of having built businesses around the world, something he wants to bring to WebOS.

On Rubinstein, DeWitt said the two are good friends who share a lot of similarities.

"We've spent the last year in the foxhole together," he said. "I know Jon is fired up about it."