HP has announced to the world, plans to release a WebOS based tablet early next year, and it would seem to be a promising product. After all, HP bought Compaq, one of my favorite tablets ever sold to date, the TC1100, came from that brain trust. The pedigree is in place.

hptablet The Challenge Ahead For The HP WebOS Tablet

On top of that, the WebOS has been lauded by critics as the mobile OS to beat. So good, in fact, that HP paid 1.2 billion for the dying Palm, and its most viable product was that operating system. Rarely has an OS been so highly reviewed by so many in the industry. And pairing such an excellent OS with tablet hardware would seem to be a solid fit.

A Crowded Market

Given time, a solid performer will find a market if supported. But the WebOS tablet may not have that desperately needed market growth, period, without some special effort from HP. After all, it is stepping into a market that is already owned by Apple, which virtually created the market earlier this year. And if that was its only competitor, it may have a strong chance as the chosen alternative for the discerning consumer.

But by the time the WebOS tablet could launch, that will not be the market. Instead Android, the hottest mobile OS on the planet right now, will be ensconced into tablets of its own, and the momentum is still building. In fact, the real competition for the WebOS tablet will probably come from Android, not the Apple iPad. From the marketing perspective, that is its closest rival so far.

And that is not the only rival. Google should by that time have a tablet out, produced by HTC and running on the Chrome OS. Now the WebOS tablet is not only competing with Apple and Android, but the new Chrome OS as well. And how much attention do you think the Chrome tablet will be getting? If you are anything like me, your answer will probably be “lots”. After all, Android is where its at, thanks to Google. I see no reason why they can’t have a repeat for at least some segment of the market.

But a Chrome tablet will more than likely be based in the cloud. At least that is what the trend would suggest. And it would seem that the current mobile market is not being driven by cloud offerings as much as something else – the availability of apps.

App Attack

If you have watched any commercials in the past couple years where Apple has been marketing the iPhone, you know this – Apple focused on the apps. And for good reason, since the app is what empowers the user to go beyond and above the original use of the phone. With a good app a mobile device, just like the personal computer before it, can become something unique to the user’s needs.

So the apps were built, and the market grew. More apps were built, the market grew again, and today the App Store boasts over 225,000 apps for download. Sure, a lot of them are useless, but just the law of averages alone suggests that if you have a need, you can probably find an app to fill it. And all of these run on the iPad, with iPad specific apps increasing daily.

The Android market has followed the same strategy, and already you can find over 70,000 apps for that platform. While a lot of them are crossovers from the iPhone market, the apps unique to Android continue to grow every day. While none to date have been built specifically for an Android tablet, the bulk of them should work on such a device. And once an Android tablet launches, we should expect both new apps designed to run on it as well as crossover apps from the iPad.

The WebOS, by contrast, sports about 3,200 apps. And at this point it is unknown if they will even work on a WebOS tablet, and if the hardware will allow it. If everything is perfect, the WebOS tablet will be very limited compared to its competitors. And with the demise of the Pre and other such phones being under performers, I can’t see an army of developers correcting the lack of apps any time soon, especially considering that it is one tablet from only one company.

But that doesn’t mean that a small library of solid apps can’t sell a mobile product. The problem could be all in the expectations of the buyer at that time.

The Palm Swan Song Effect

Right now, there is another potential lead weight figuratively tied around the WebOS neck. That is, the OS is for good reason strongly related to all things Palm. After all Palm was hoping for good things from their heavily invested new OS, and they marketed it accordingly.

But Palm is no more, and the stigma of the company going under is a cross that WebOS will have to bear. The more time that elapses since the end of Palm (and HP can spin it in their favor), the less this will be a marketing issue. The consumer tends to have a short attention span, but it is a weakness that could be exploited by competitors.

The Solid Core Market and Refinement by Failure

Nonetheless, the WebOS has some things that work very well. This is in basic core functionality that users need. And nowhere will this capability be more well received than the business segment. While in the past the computer industry left little for a niche operating system, it might be that a reasonable market could be found for a WebOS tablet in this area alone. That is, if HP’s expectations for the device allows it to continue as such a niche product.

One thing that could help the WebOS tablet in this area is that they have the power of hindsight – the competitor’s hindsight. All they have to do is to listen to the business complaints of the failings of the iPad to get a good idea where to focus their efforts. And of course there will be more rumblings by then about the Android and Chrome tablet shortcomings, giving them more business specific information from other’s mistakes. If they can deliver the product business ready, the niche market could be theirs.

Has this Race already been run?

You could argue that this race has already been run on the smartphone market, with WebOS coming up short. And that was without the competition of Android and Chrome. If it was the smartphone platform again, I would agree that WebOS doesn’t stand much of a chance. But this is something new.

The tablet market is building from users who are still trying to find the right place to use them. A WebOS tablet stands a good chance at finding its customer base, just like others in the field. But it is a gamble, and nobody seems to understand this more than HP – after all, they are releasing a Windows tablet as well. Just in case it doesn’t pan out for WebOS, one of the finest mobile operating systems to not have a market of its own.