by Jean-Louis Gassée

Where have we heard a similar mantra? Despite their apparent divorce from Microsoft, it sounds like HP’s brains have been infected with a mutation of the “Windows Everywhere” virus.

Let’s recap.

Late April 2010, HP acquires Palm for $1.2B. In July 2010, then-CEO Mark Hurd tells us he didn’t buy WebOS just for smartphones, but also for printers and tablets:

“We didn’t buy Palm to be in the smartphone business. And I tell people that, but it doesn’t seem to resonate well. We bought it for the IP. The WebOS is one of the two ground-up pieces of software that is built as a web operating environment [...] We have tens of millions of HP small form factor web-connected devices [...] Now imagine that being a web-connected environment where now you can get a common look and feel and a common set of services laid against that environment. That is a very value proposition.”

This sends two messages:

- No more Windows Mobile or Windows Phone 7, we “go Apple’’. We’ll own the entire hardware/software combo. (Contrast this with Nokia which is heading in the opposite direction, abandoning Symbian to “go Microsoft”, literally this time.)

- We’ll put WebOS everywhere: tens of millions of HP small form factor web-connected devices.

Mark Hurd steps on a mine, moves to Oracle and, in September 2010, HP gets a new CEO, Leo Apotheker.

Does he change strategy?

Not at all. On February 9th, HP announced its WebOS tablet, the TouchPad, and two smartphones, the Pre 3 and the neat-looking, diminutive Veer.

These products haven’t shipped yet. We’re told “Summer” for the TouchPad and Pre3, and “Spring” for the Veer. I hope to get my mitts on them as soon as I can. I’m intrigued: How will the HP devices fare in a market where Google/Android, RIM, and Apple keep strengthening their positions? To borrow from Stephen Elop’s “Burning Platforms” memo, this is no longer is a war of platforms, it’s a war of ecosystems:

“The battle of devices has now become a war of ecosystems, where ecosystems include not only the hardware and software of the device, but developers, applications, e-commerce, advertising, search, social applications, location-based services, unified communications and many other things.”

Regarding product details and the agility of the UI, HP’s announcement is enticing…but little is said about the company’s plans to build a viable universe around these new devices. Perhaps the plan is to announce the products early so developers, content providers, and channels have enough time to evaluate the opportunity and, if committed, be ready when the products ship.

This week, Leo Apotheker went one step further. On page 2 of a meaty Bloomberg Businessweek article, we learn that “… starting next year, every one of the PCs shipped by HP will include the ability to run WebOS in addition to Microsoft Corp.’s Windows… The move is aimed at enticing software developers to create a wider range of applications that would differentiate HP PCs, printers, tablets and phones from those sold by rivals.

On the surface, WebOS developers will have the tens of millions of PCs and laptops HP sells every year as targets for their applications. More devices, bigger opportunity.

But the reality is much more complicated.

First, is this an either/or proposition, run Windows or run WebOS? Or is this a quickboot arrangement similar to Splashtop, a customized Linux software packages that boots in 5 seconds or so, versus the minute or more it takes with Windows. (I checked, after more than a minute no have apps have loaded on my Dell netbook.)

With Splashtop, you can quickly take a look at web pages or Gmail, but you still need to boot into Windows if you want to run Office applications. Splashtop doesn’t appear to be gaining much traction. Early adopters such as Asus (and HP) don’t seem eager to make it a standard offering on their products.

We also have virtual machine solutions such as Parallels and VMware Fusion. These products run Windows within a Mac — and they do a pretty good job of it in my experience. The dueling OSs now both use Intel chips and the virtual machine lets you use both without rebooting.

Rebooting annoys users. Very few use such a procedure — hence the popularity of virtual machines. If users won’t reboot, there’s no opportunity for developers. This leads me to believe that the WebOS “graft” on the HP PCs will be more like a quickboot proposition where you’d first boot into WebOS, and then into Windows. Or, as HP might discreetly hope, you’d boot into WebOS and stay there. If the user finds enough useful applications in the WebOS environment, why boot Windows?

Then we have the Intel chip problem: WebOS and its applications run on ARM hardware. This would force HP to develop and maintain two versions of its OS. It’s feasible, but it adds complexity, costs, and bugs. And for developers, it’s far from ideal: WebOS applications would have to run on two processors and on an indeterminate number of form factors: netbooks, laptops, tablets, printers. (Digressing again on Nokia: The number of target devices and form factors is what caused Nokia to buy TrollTech for Qt, its cross-device development tools and UI. With the MicroNokia deal, Qt is no longer strategic and will be sold to Digia.)

But wait, there’s more. At CES this year, Steve Ballmer announced that the next version of Windows (8?) will be ported to ARM. This is Microsoft’s likely path back into the tablet market it lost to Apple and the coming wave of Android tablets. If we are to believe Bloomberg, an ARM-based Microsoft tablet will be available for the 2012 back-to-school season.

Is this what Leo Apotheker had in mind when he mentioned WebOS on PCs?

If so, here is how the HP PC scene could look like “sometime” in 2012:

- Intel-based PCs and laptops running the “mature” Windows 7.
- ARM-based laptop and netbooks on Windows 8?
- Tablets using a version of Windows 8 with a touch interface?
- Some, but not all, “will include the ability to run WebOS in addition to Microsoft Corp.’s Windows”

Simple, easy to understand. Can you imagine what the sneers and the giggles, at Apple and Google, when looking at such a picture?

On Monday March 14th, HP’s CEO will outline his vision in greater detail.

Understandably, he wants to “decommoditize” HP’s PCS, he’s looking for a way out of the life as a Microsoft serf. PC makers are racing to the bottom, a race Leo Apotheker knows he can’t win. Hence “WebOS Everywhere”: a way for HP to better its destiny.

But another “everywhere’’ story won’t work.

Let’s hope he’ll explain instead where WebOS will focus and how it’ll make a difference for customers and app developers.