HP brings webOS to the kitchen

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Hewlett-Packard promised it would extend webOS well beyond smartphones, which most people took to mean printers and cloudbooks. But its ambitions are far broader, and it is already in talks with vendors of kitchen appliances and cars to make webOS a standard for bringing intelligent web connectivity to every device.

In this respect, HP is closer to Intel’s MeeGo than to other mobile or cloud systems like Android or Chrome OS. The platform it acquired with Palm is more mature than MeeGo, but was devised for complex smartphones and will require significant change and slimming-down to be suitable for a huge range of embedded devices. However, according to the Wall Street Journal, HP is already on that road, knowing from Microsoft’s history that having the OS in every client device boosts the power of back end platforms.

HP wants to persuade appliance and car manufacturers to use its webOS operating system in their products. But the software’s late arrival to the market and relatively small footprint are prompting companies to pause before licensing the platform.

HP hopes that getting webOS on appliances and in cars will create an ecosystem of devices and accessories around the operating system. That will encourage developers to write programs that can be used on those products, spurring a market of software like?Apple?Inc. has done with its App Store bazaar. Analysts say HP also hopes that licensing the software to manufacturers will create a regular and predictable revenue stream.

The company’s ambitions, however, face a host of challenges from already-specialized software makers and companies uninterested in putting an advanced operating system in their products, analysts and industry insiders say.

HP, which acquired webOS when it bought Palm Inc. last year, is coming late to the game. Many car, airplane and appliance makers have built their own specialized software. Others are using Google?Inc.’s Android operating system, the most commonly used OS for smartphones, or a specialized version of?Microsoft?Corp.’s Windows operating system for appliances.

HP will be up against embedded Windows too, as manufacturers look to add a touchscreen user interface and browser to their products to replace physical controls and add intelligence. Some companies are already looking to create common applications and stores that span not only the phone, PC and TV, but also the car and the refrigerator.

Seamless integration

The company reasons consumers who use a WebOS-based refrigerator or car will gravitate to phones and tablets that run the same platform to assure seamless integration. For example, if a consumer’s vehicle needs an oil change or the door to the fridge is left open, users can get alerts sent directly to their other WebOS devices.

The new plan maybe a recipe for success, but it may be tough for HP to execute. HP’s TouchPad, which runs WebOS, has struggled to compete against Apple’s iPad and Android-based tablets, prompting the company to drop the price of the device by $100.

In other words, WebOS is not currently the most popular platform.

While HP reports companies have an interest in striking a deal, none has yet committed, possibly because of Google’s competing interest. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company has also reportedly met with hardware companies to discuss the possibility of implementing the OS into products ranging from GPS terminals to refrigerators.

Analysts say WebOS is solid and easy-to-use, which could make it the best option for companies manufacturing devices for non-tech-savvy people. The software has an intuitive look and feel, and it gleans data from business email accounts and social networks to create address books and calendars.

In May, rival Google announced its [email protected] plan to?turn smartphones into universal remotes?for all kinds of electronic devices.

Smart automobiles

HP may also encounter difficulty in instituting an OS in automobiles.

Ford Motor?Co. uses a specialized version of Windows in its car entertainment software, called “Sync,” which allows drivers to wirelessly connect their phone. The system also lets drivers use voice commands to make calls, change music and listen to messages.?Toyota Motor?Corp. has a similar system called “Entune” that allows drivers to reserve restaurant tables and order movie tickets.

Analysts say those systems highlight HP’s late start. Auto makers already have software and are unlikely to change until a new product cycle starts, they say.

“The automobile industry has no interest in changing suppliers every year,” said Thilo Koslowski, an analyst at Gartner.

HP is also coming from behind in other industries.

Panasonic Avionics Corp., which develops airplane entertainment systems, said late last year that it will begin integrating Google’s Android OS into products. A spokesman said the company is willing to consider other software, such as webOS, but is concentrating on Android for now. The company’s first Android-powered devices should be on runways sometime in 2013.

HP’S efforts to license webOS might also be complicated by the company’s struggles to gain acceptance for its own products running the software. Last week, HP cut the price of its TouchPad tablet computer, designed to compete with Apple’s iPad. The TouchPad was released on July 1.

While the company declined to comment on TouchPad sales, analysts say the price cuts, which sliced $100 from the device’s sticker, suggest HP is having trouble selling the product despite a big marketing effort.

Many companies say they remain open to the prospect of using webOS, though they haven’t made any decisions yet. Virgin America Inc. said it is studying options?including webOS?for upgrading its in-flight entertainment system, which is expected to make its debut later this year. The company is seeking a system that can play live television channels and accommodate travelers’ food and drink orders on a screen.

“We see this setting as unique and being able to tailor that experience to people who travel is important,” said Abby Lunardini, a spokeswoman for the airline. She said the multimillion-dollar upgrade will likely provide the company’s technology base for the next five to 10 years.

Still, many manufacturers aren’t sold on the need to have such a complex operating system in relatively low-tech products such as washing machines and toasters.

Whirlpool?Corp., which makes the Maytag, KitchenAid and Jenn-Air lines of home products, said it isn’t interested in putting advanced touch-screen devices on its kitchen appliances because some products have life spans as long as 15 years. Software that could seem innovative today could fall out of style in the future, said Warwick Stirling, who heads up Whirlpool’s technology efforts across its many brands.

Instead, Whirlpool wants to connect its appliances to the Internet so they can alert customers via their smartphones when there is a problem, such as a refrigerator door ajar. “We need our appliances to interact with those devices,” Mr. Stirling said. ” ‘Smart’ doesn’t mean putting a 15-inch screen on your fridge.”

Sources: WSJ, rethink-wireless, mobiledia

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