The strange life and death of the TouchPad - and how it threatens HP's grand plan

Steve Ranger's Notebook: The on-again, off-again tablet makes HP's reinvention an uphill struggle...

The ongoing saga of the HP TouchPad makes it harder for HP to execute on its grand plan, says editor Steve Ranger.

The short and yet bizarre life of the HP TouchPad continues to generate more twists and turns than a hula-hooping conference.

To recap - HP launched the TouchPad in July with the aim of taking on the all-powerful Apple iPad, mainly by touting the TouchPad's multitasking to business users.

However, within weeks, the tablet was rendered obsolete, suddenly the mayfly of the gadget world because HP decided the early response hadn't been good enough, and shuttered its webOS hardware business as part of a major corporate strategy rethink.

As a result, HP slashed the prices of the device from £349 to £89 for the 16GB TouchPad, and from £429 to £115 for the 32GB model, prompting the devices to sell like hot cakes.

A clearly surprised HP then decided to manufacture a few more TouchPads to meet "unfulfilled demand".

Except there won't be any for Europe or the UK.

Except now Reuters is reporting that they tablet might get resurrected again, maybe, as part of HP's plans for its PC business. Truly this is a zombie tablet that just won't lie down and die (still, it's a reflection of the current surreal state of the tablet market that the only device managing to put up any sort of challenge to the iPad is one that is being sold for roughly $200 less than it actually costs to manufacture).

HP webOS

The saga of the HP TouchPad is coming back for one last runPhoto: HP

If the confusion was only limited to one touchscreen device, this would be an amusing little farce but little more.

However, HP must make sure that the fate of the TouchPad doesn't overshadow its larger plans. When it killed off the TouchPad, HP announced the decision to also start exploring its options for the personal systems group (its PC business) - a process expected to take 12 to 18 months. These options include "the separation of its PC business into a separate company through a spin-off or other transaction", HP said at the time.

As HP's personal systems group is a gigantic supplier to businesses large and small, revealing such an uncertain future for the unit long before any plan has been formulated has inevitably created great concern in the market, prompting Paul Hunter, head of HP's personal systems group in the UK and Ireland, to issue a statement which ran: "Let me be absolutely clear in saying that at no stage has HP said it is quitting the PC business."

All of this is part of HP's attempt to focus on high-margin software - a strategy which inspired the bid for Autonomy - and shift away from the lower-margin hardware business. Making the tough decision to potentially spin off its PC business - which still has about a third of the global market - is a brave one. IBM did the same thing and it worked well, but that was in a very different marketplace.

Buying Autonomy is an interesting move, but HP may need to add more middleware, business intelligence and database infrastructure as well. As Quocirca analyst Clive Longbottom put it: "HP are caught between several rocks and several hard places."

The broad strategy to reinvent HP could yet work - but every misstep like the TouchPad saga makes achieving that goal a little harder.

By Steve Ranger

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic. An award-winning journalist, Steve writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture, and regularly appears on TV and radio discussing tech issues. Previously he was th...