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COMMENT: When the world got its first glimpse of HP’s upcoming slate device at CES in January, it was in the hands not of an HP exec, but Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who touted it as the sort of hardware that would carry Windows 7 into the tablet market.

While that prospect was not universally welcomed, given the rise of more touch-centric mobile operating systems like those from Apple and Google, it appeared that HP had once again thrown its lot in with its longtime partner. Or it did until Wednesday, when HP announced it was paying $1.2 billion for struggling smartphone pioneer Palm, primarily for its well-regarded webOS and its hefty patent portfolio.

Oh, the Palm execs were saying all the right things after the announcement. “Let’s be crystal clear: Microsoft continues to be a huge strategic partner for HP,” said Todd Bradley, head of HP’s Personal Systems Group and onetime CEO of Palm. “As we look at webOS, though, it’s a natural platform for us to develop products on.” And it’s a platform HP considers more advanced than anything it has looked at (and presumably it has had a good look at Microsoft’s mobile roadmap).

 “Our intent is to double down on webOS. … We think it’s one of the best operating systems out there today,” said Brian Humphries, HP’s Senior Vice President of Strategy and Corporate Development. “We see nothing in development in the next three to five years that comes close. We want to take HP’s financial strength and use it to take webOS to the next level.”

The products, said HP, will include not just smartphones, but tablets, netbooks and who knows what else. And when HP’s choice is to go with an OS that can be controlled in-house and tightly integrated with the hardware or to license a Microsoft product and remain tied to its development schedule, you have to figure that Redmond will get the nod a lot less often.

 

As with any deal like this, there are plenty of naysayers who don’t think HP will have any more luck than Palm did in gaining market traction. I wouldn’t be so sure, though it will take a while (and the competition isn’t standing still). But if HP can put webOS on some compelling hardware, it has the marketing muscle and retail reach to give it a fighting chance, if not at overtaking the leaders, at least at building a profitable division. Under CEO Mark Hurd, the emphasis at HP has been on discipline and execution, and that’s what it will take to make this work.

See siliconvalley.com

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