Another day, another huge upheaval in the mobile computing space: this time it’s HP pulling out of tablets and mobiles. Selling mobile devices used to be the business of Palm, which HP bought for $1.2bn just over a year ago.

Until recently, HP had been banking on Palm’s webOS operating system to win it a big slice of the tablet and smartphone markets: in February this year, at the annual Mobile World Congress (MWC) trade show, I watched HP demoing its first webOS tablet along with two webOS smartphones, the Veer and Pre3.

WebOS was slick and intuitive, with multitasking and notifications built in from the get-go. The UI was innovative and intuitive, the WebKit browser supported multitouch gestures, Flash and HTML5. On the hardware front, smartphones saw shiny touchscreens coupled with slide-out full Qwerty keyboards – offering the best of both input worlds.

HP shutters webOS devices: Kills off the TouchPad

The HP TouchPad: One of the shortest-lived mobile gadgets in recent memoryPhoto: Steve Ranger/silicon.com

Aesthetics-wise, edges were rounded and handsets sat snugly in the palm – smooth as pebbles. The tiny Veer was small enough to be a pebble in fact, while the TouchPad resembled a handsome but chunkier iPad.

With hardware and software this attractive, comparisons with Apple’s wares were inevitable, and industry watchers wondered whether the TouchPad could be a serious rival to the iPad.

The answer, we now learn, is no: the TouchPad was no iPad killer. HP has closed its webOS devices business – and unless it decides to license or sell the software (HTC could make a good suitor – it’s just a shame it’s too late for Nokia), webOS is facing a less than dignified relegation to powering printer hardware.

The death of the TouchPad tells us several things:

1. Hardware and software is not enough Firstly it shows that great software and decent hardware are not in themselves enough to compete in the fiercely competitive mobile market – not now Apple has established it owns the premium end of the market. It also shows that vertical integration – a particularly trendy notion at present – is not some magic bullet in mobile. Similarly, owning both software and hardware hasn’t helped RIM transform its ageing mobile business to compete with Apple and Android. Indeed, the BlackBerry-maker has had to…

 

…buy in new software, with its acquisition of QNX, to try to overhaul its offerings.

RIM’s legacy BlackBerry OS platform has become slow and cumbersome, overtaken by the likes of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, while its attempts to update its hardware have not always gone to plan (clickable touchscreens anyone?). Few would describe RIM’s hardware design as innovative either – ‘business as usual’ might be a better description. A slick next-generation mobile OS platforms that integrates across its smartphones and PlayBook tablet still eludes RIM.

Google’s $12.5bn grab for Motorola could be seen as the latest development in the vertical integration arena – an attempt by Google to produce a better class of Android device by controlling both hardware and software. Of course, however, there are other reasons Google wants to say Hello Moto – not least the latter’s patents portfolio.

2 Ecosystems matter The demise of the TouchPad also shows that success isn’t just about the hardware. Palm – and then HP-with-Palm – had struggled to flesh out a webOS ecosystem, meaning the platform was sorely lacking in apps – and apps are an essential ingredient for a successful mobile platform these days. Nokia and Intel’s MeeGo platform might have been an awesome piece of software and a great mobile OS – but convincing developers to spent time on it when they could be making iOS, Android or even Windows Phone 7 wares was always going to be tough.

Nokia N900 Meego phone

The MeeGo OS couldn’t take off without an ecosystemPhoto: Nokia

Apple has built an app ecosystem that has swelled to hundreds of thousands of apps now and billions of downloads. It’s not necessarily unassailable but the sheer scale of the App Store is enough to convince developers to buy in to it and, crucially, to abandon or not even bother kicking the tyres of alternatives. Add to that, apps bring the gadget punters in – making it harder to sell a device if there’s not lack a healthy, well-established ecosystem around it.

3. Apple continues to be unbeatable The death of the TouchPad means that the tablet market remains Apple’s market for now. No one is shipping truckloads of tablets and making truckloads of money on slates apart from Apple which has notched up some 25 million iPads shipped to date. Earlier this year, analyst house Gartner predicted Apple’s domination of tablets will last at least five years – with Cupertino owning more than half the market for the next three years.

It was telling that at Samsung’s MWC press event this year the company spent hours on lavish presentations for its new Galaxy S II smartphone – with barely a mention for its new Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet. The lesson so far is…

 

…smartphones are lucrative for many companies, tablets are lucrative only for Apple.

4. To beat Apple you have to be different Fourth and finally: imitating Apple is not enough. Bringing great devices to a market where Apple doesn’t play is one thing. Bringing great devices to a market where Apple already is – or even where Apple suddenly decides it wants to be (as it did with smartphones back in 2007) – is always going to difficult and, for some, deadly.

Nokia has learnt this to its cost. Google has deployed a successful strategy in the smartphone space to grow Android – now the largest mobile OS, but it has done this exactly by not imitating Apple: unlike iOS, Android is open source; runs on the hardware of multiple mobile makers which exists in multiple form factors, at multiple price points and so on.

Copying Apple may sound like a great strategy on the surface – who wouldn’t want to imitate the slickness of iOS, the runaway success of the App Store, the sales and revenue garnered from sales of iPhones and iPads? But in many respects Apple’s success is another trap for its rivals to fall into: a pitfall many seem unable to avoid.

Imitating Apple means rivals condemn themselves to remaining on the back foot rather than capturing the imagination of tech users by creating genuinely innovative devices. There they have to struggle to catch up – when they could be ploughing (and owning) their own furrow. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but in business terms it can be the sincerest form of flat-footery too.

It’s time for electronics companies to switch off their photocopiers and think differently to Apple. Amazon has managed it with the Kindle – a mobile device that does not seek to clone Apple’s hardware. The Kindle may end up being translated into tablet form and by then Amazon will have a healthy ecosystem of Kindle users underpinning its efforts.

Likewise if Google decides to use its mobile hardware division – that is, Motorola – to really challenge Apple at the premium end of mobile, it will at least have a thriving Android ecosystem behind it to give it a fighting chance. That’s something HP/Palm just couldn’t manage.

Designing and building great mobile devices is tough enough at the best of times. Now Apple has made sure these are the toughest of times.