The HP TouchPad, running WebOS, could be slick enough to attract more consumers than any individual Android tablets or the BlackBerry PlayBook -- but it has no shot at dethroning the Apple iPad, an analyst said Wednesday.
"Collectively, Android tablets are huge; the market is already flooded with them. But if you're looking not at the whole platform, but rather a one-to-one comparison, the TouchPad could make a good case for the No. 2 spot behind the iPad," said Sarah Rotman Epps, a tech analyst at Forrester Research. "The TouchPad could outsell the Motorola Xoom or the Samsung Galaxy Tab or the BlackBerry PlayBook."
A major advantage that Hewlett-Packard's TouchPad could have over tablets running Google's Android operating system is its screen size, Rotman Epps said.
"Every Android tablet is slightly different, and Honeycomb, the first version of Android optimized for tablets, isn't out yet," she said. "So what you've had so far is a smart-phone operating system on a bunch of tablets and not many Android apps actually built for tablet use."
The mix of inconsistent specs for Android tablets has made it tougher for developers looking to make tablet apps on Android, Rotman Epps said.
"What HP has to overcome is that the only apps out there built for tablets right now are really built for the iPad," she said. "If your tablet is going to succeed, it needs apps, and making the screen on the TouchPad the same size as the iPad should make it easier for developers to port apps over. If developers start doing that, then HP can build an app ecosystem which will attract consumers."
The screen size isn't the only specification that matches the iPad, she noted. Both the iPad and the TouchPad run on Wi-Fi and 3G Internet service, weigh 1.6 pounds and have processors running at about 1 GHz.
The TouchPad features a front-facing camera for video chat, and the next-generation iPad, which should hit retail sometime this year, is widely expected to also feature a camera on the front to utilize Apple's FaceTime video-chat standard.
"It is not at all a mistake on HP's part that the TouchPad and the iPad are so similar," Rotman Epps said. "HP is explicitly trying to compete with Apple in having its own hardware and having its own operating system. So far, Apple has been by far the most successful in the tablet space, and HP is looking to replicate that success on its own. Not with Android and not with Windows."
It's noteworthy, she said, that HP isn't offering its first consumer tablet with Microsoft's Windows 7 -- the same operating system that runs on its HP 500 Slate tablet aimed at business users.
"If you're making boxes that run Android or Windows, you have the problem of competing with all the other boxes that run Android of Windows," Rotman Epps said."But it does say something about the failure of Microsoft to position Windows 7 as a winning operating system for tablets that HP is willing to go out on its own with WebOS. This is really another missed opportunity for Microsoft in tablets."
Nothing HP announced on Wednesday puts it ahead of Apple, but the TouchPad running WebOS is a bet that its brand strength and retail channels are strong enough to compete with Apple, she said.
With HP attempting to build WebOS up as a major operating system for tablets and smart phones, the trimming of the Palm brand from the name and marketing of the new WebOS devices isn't a mistake either, the analyst said.
"People love Windows, and HP now has the challenge of convincing consumers to want HP devices that don't run Windows," Rotman Epps said. "HP is trying to differentiate itself and unbundle itself from Microsoft, and that means they're losing a bit of the Microsoft brand and marketing power that could have helped their tablets, but keeping the Palm name around wouldn't help them."
HP is a high-ranking brand and a name consumers trust, she said.
"Palm is not," Rottman Epps said. "In our studies, HP ranks pretty high and Palm always ranks pretty low. HP recognizes that in the U.S. and globally, it has a much stronger brand than Palm to try and build a tablet ecosystem on."
HP made a big deal of getting apps for Netflix and Amazon's Kindle on its WebOS phones and on the TouchPad when it announced the new devices on Wednesday during a news conference in San Francisco. Having an app for Netflix does put WebOS ahead of Android -- which still doesn't have an app that can stream video from the popular movie-and-TV-show subscription service.
But such apps are expected by consumers at this point, she said.
"Kindle and Netflix is not a differentiator, but it's necessary, and having them on board is what HP needs to do to gain serious consideration from consumers," Rottman Epps said.
And if HP can do that, then spending $1.2 billion to buy Palm last April could pay off.
Forrester has forecast that more than 24 million tablets will be sold in the U.S. in 2011, with the lion's share of them being the iPad. Apple sold more than 14 million iPad's last year, with 7.33 million units sold last quarter.
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Photo: HP Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein, shows off the new HP TouchPad tablet during a Hewlett Packard WebOS press conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, Feb. 9. Credit: Associated Press
Images: (Middle) The front of the HP TouchPad tablet and (bottom) the back of the device. Credit: Hewlett-Packard