HP: TouchPad faces tough fight after June launch

HP's webOS platform still has a long way to go to prove itself, but the company is forging ahead with yet another divisive entry into the tablet market featuring the OS. We took the HP TouchPad for a spin to see if Apple's popular iPad 2 has anything to worry about - and had a chat to HP about its plans for the market.

When HP announced it would be buying PDA pioneer and ailing smartphone specialist Palm, it came as a surprise to many. It soon became clear, however, that the company wanted only one thing: Palm's webOS mobile platform.

Since the acquisition, HP has announced plans to standardise on webOS across its entire platform, installing it on smartphones, tablets, netbooks, and PCs - as a dual-boot next to the ubiquitous Windows, of course. Speaking to thinq_ at the Gadget Show Live this week, HP's Rebecca Shears explained that the platform is central to HP's future plans.

"It's about this seamless, interconnected world," she claimed. "Tap-to-share, phones, laptops - we're a tech company that provides this world where everything is connected. For us, webOS is our primary operating system - and that is what we'll be pushing."

To prove that, HP is set to launch a tablet which, at first glance, looks like a pretty straightforward iPad clone. A Qualcomm Snapdragon 1.2GHz dual-core processor hides behind a 9.7-inch multi-touch display - but, unlike its competitors, HP isn't bundling Android in its device.

"Observers might think we've been slow to market, but I don't think so," claimed Terry Durkin - allowing its competitors to test out the market before HP comes along with a device, he claims, that will revolutionise the industry. "The tablet functionality in webOS is amazing."

Playing with the device, it's clear that Durkin isn't exaggerating. The interface is smooth and clear, evoking a more Android Honeycomb feel than the crisp lines of Apple's iOS - although whether users see that as an advantage or not will be down to personal preference.

The touchscreen - as you'd expect from a device aimed at the top-end of the market - is smooth and responsive, and the interface quick to react to commands thanks to the fast processor at the device's heart. Web browsing is equally pleasurable, with Flash Player 10.1 Beta included for rich-media playback.

There is one key area in which HP may struggle, however: the ecosystem. Apple's iPad and the multitudinous Android tablets both enjoy a massive development community, with thousands of third-party applications - of varying quality, it must be said - available for download. HP's webOS has a far smaller community - and, thus far, the applications available are better suited to smartphones than tablets.

It's something that HP is looking to address. "We'll have loads of apps at launch," claimed Shears, explaining that the company will be taking a two-tier approach to webOS applications. "We're not going for volume. Instead, we're developing localised premium apps with partners: music, entertainment, social media and games."

Durkin claims that HP isn't scared of the stiff competition the TouchPad faces from the likes of the iPad 2, Acer's recently launched Transformer, and RIM's PlayBook. "There will be competitors," he admitted, "but competition is good. I'm confident of HP's offering. While it will be launched as a consumer product - that's our focus for now - there will be a commercial [enterprise] possibility in the future."

Officially, the TouchPad doesn't have a launch date beyond "summer" - but a loose-lipped spokesperson, who shall remain nameless, told us that we can expect the device to hit shelves in June, before being shushed by HP's PR representatives.

Whether HP's wait-and-see approach to the tablet market will pay off remains to be seen, however - and will largely depend on the public's reaction to the tablet build of webOS.