Will HP be Apple’s Nikon?

In Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Kevin Tofel reports on HP’s decision to shelve development of an Android-based tablet that was supposed to go on sale later this year:

The Apple-like control of hardware, software, and ecosystem HP gains from webOS isn’t lost on the hardware company. After the Palm deal was announced, Brian Humphries, senior vice-president for corporate strategy and development at HP, noted this in a GigaOM interview:

“Ultimately, the Palm webOS and Apple are the two that can scale best over multiple devices, and we are going to compete with Apple … in the broader mobile category.”

Apple’s tightly integrated approach to hardware and software, scorned by the tech industry in the 1990s, is now being embraced by HP. John Gruber’s 2007 article, Apple Needs a Nikon, argued that Apple’s creativity and passion for original design would benefit from competition with another company who paid just as much attention to entire design and experience of a product, down to the smallest details:

Canon’s cameras are better because there’s Nikon — and vice-versa. Canon-vs.-Nikon arguments can get ugly, but in the end, they’re arguments about two companies that make great cameras and great lenses. Apple has no such rival.

HP appears to be positioning itself as that rival. The acquisition of Palm, and HP’s accompanying statements about investing significantly in webOS, sent a clear message to Microsoft that HP doesn’t just want to make hardware that runs someone else’s software. Horace Dediu even speculates that the HP’s acquisition of Palm is the real reasin why Robbie Bach “retired” at 48 years old, from his position as President of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division:

Bach lost a key account; in fact, he could be responsible for having lost the biggest account that Microsoft ever had.  Ballmer is a sales guy and he knows the importance of these relationships.  A customer like HP must be managed carefully and their strategy must be steered to fit with yours.  If HP felt they needed to go somewhere else for their mobile OS, it’s a slap in the face, but if they buy the asset and IP and internalize a competing platform, then that is a dagger to the heart for Ballmer.

Consider Google’s seduction of Dell. Microsoft can tolerate Dell’s affairs (Dell even fooled around with Linux back in the day.) But in contrast, HP is effectively filing for divorce.

Dediu’s argument makes sense. HP’s moves signal that it is serious about controlling its own destiny as a consumer electronics maker, and that it sees Apple’s approach as the best way to do that.

One caveat though: Humphries is getting a little ahead of himself in that first quote by speaking in the present tense about webOS’s ability to “scale best over multiple devices.” He’s correct about Apple’s iOS, because it is already running on three different, shipping devices: iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. HP hasn’t released a tablet running webOS yet, so one can only measure how it compares on phones. HP still needs to show that it can make webOS a worthy competitor on tablets.

This has the potential to be one of the most interesting technology stories of the year, if HP gets it right.

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