The Engadget Interview: Jon Rubinstein and Steven McArthur talk webOS on PCs, 'Music Synergy,' competition, and more

We had a chance to sit down with HP's Jon Rubinstein and SVP of applications and services Steven McArthur just after the company's device-filled event yesterday, and the conversation was rather revealing. Besides being extremely upfront about some tough issues (timing, legacy support), both execs were more than willing to tackle questions about HP's current deficiencies in the consumer electronics space. We've put together a rough transcript of the chat below, and it touches on a lot of issues currently facing HP and its user base -- namely, developer support, future versions of webOS, where the company is headed with devices, and what the overarching strategy will be in the coming weeks and months. We highly suggest you take a look... after the break.

Engadget: Your new CEO, Leo Apotheker, said recently in an interview with the BBC that the devices announced at this event would ship "within weeks" -- that clearly isn't the case. Can you explain?

Steven: I can't comment on that. I don't know the context. We're going to work on getting these products out as fast as we can.

Engadget: Okay, but you said summer. Early summer, late summer?

Steven: We are anxious to get a fantastic product into folks' hands as fast as possible.

Engadget: What are you doing on the developer front? [This was before the developer event]

Steven: We expect to have apps in the low tens of thousands by the launch of the Pre 3 and TouchPad. That's phase 1. We've got a massive footprint, we're committed to building the best tools for developers, and we're committed to putting in place the best marketing, and helping them drive their business programs.

Engadget: What about webOS on desktops? Is this going to be a skin on a Windows PC... or a standalone product?

Steven: We'll announce that in the next few months.

Engadget: But it's possible to create a netbook or a laptop that's pure webOS?

Steven: Architecturally it's entirely possible to have webOS have a keyboard and mouse input. Absolutely.

Engadget: On timing -- this feels a little like Palm at CES 2009. Hurry up and wait.

Jon: From a tablet perspective, we've got a home court advantage because of HP's distribution footprint.

Engadget: But how do you battle something like the iPad? Apple is basically the only show in town right now. We know the scale is here...

Jon: The marketing is going to be there. Steven is going to deliver the content, we're going to deliver the cloud services. Would I rather have it tomorrow? Of course!

Engadget: Okay, but what about the Veer? You believe in this market -- you feel there's a market for that kind of phone [Kin, Pixi -- tiny phones for tiny people]?

Jon: This is a high end device in a small package -- and if you own a WiFi tablet, why would you want a big device in your pocket? A good example is someone who travels with their TouchPad, and wants to also have a great little phone in their pocket. This can be their mobile hotspot -- so you have a big screen to work on, and the smaller one.

Engadget: On the Pre 3 -- the specs are competitive with what's on the market right now, but not really beyond that. Are you concerned about the fact that it's only competitive with what's on the market right now... people are moving on in terms of resolution, camera specs...

Jon: The reality is... we missed a product cycle last year, so we're now focused on bringing these to market, and we have a lot more in the pipeline. Whether something's got 50 more pixels on the screen...

Engadget: But there is a qualitative difference between the iPhone display and a 800 x 480 display...

Jon: Our goal was to bring a great webOS device to market. It's a workhorse, it has a very fast processor... Touch to Share. It's a great product.

Engadget: And what OS version is the TouchPad running?

Jon: It's webOS 3.0.

Engadget: What about the Pre 3?

Jon: We'll issue an OTA update at some point so it'll get 3.0.

Engadget: What about the older devices?

Jon: Not the older devices. We wanted to add lots of cool new capabilities, and frankly the older products aren't powerful enough.

Engadget: Pre 2?

Jon: Pre 2 is okay.

Engadget: So the original devices... they're not getting an update?

Jon: No. But we're going to do something special for those people.

Palm rep: We want to support our existing customer base.

Jon: We'll do something. The older devices simply don't have the horsepower.

Engadget: So getting back to developers -- are you going to be able to get the names you need? Both big houses and small?

Jon: Two years ago it was just Palm and the Pre -- even then we did pretty well on getting the apps that matter. My argument is that in the end -- yes apps matter, and we need to get a variety -- but we need to continue doing what we're doing, and that's the key apps. We don't put a Skype app on it -- it's built into the phone app. When you get your Pre 2 on Verizon, it supports Skype in the phone app. when you fire up Verizon Skype calls on your Pre 2, you don't have a separate app -- you're in the phone.

Engadget: Like the Twitter piece of the demo we saw at the event -- that wasn't a native app?

Jon: It was a plugin for Just Type. Look, we love developers, we're going to move to support them. What Todd said about "not locking up the tools in the garage" -- that's what we've been doing for the last couple of years. We're going to do a big app push, we get it, it's different now that HP could have a much broader product offering, and I think this isn't just about apps -- it's about content too. Why would you want 100,000 books when you can have Kindle and have 810,000 books? When you look at other app stores, a lot of it is just content. For all of the content providers, HP is a trusted and respected partner. When they go knock on doors, doors open. We've gotten a tremendous response.

Steven: Take Kindle for example, they've opened up APIs for us that they haven't opened for anyone else...

Jon: And it's not just because I'm on the board!

Engadget: So what is the storyline? Why should consumers choose this stuff over the competition? When they walk into a store, why are they going to leave with your product?

Jon: First of all, webOS is a better experience -- true multitasking, Synergy, Just Type, OTA updates, the list goes on and on. It's a fundamentally better experience. The whole vision of connected devices... this is just the beginning. Connected devices, web connectivity, delivering unified HP webOS experiences across a variety of devices.

Engadget: But right now, it's hard to see a point where you're in the market and competing on this stuff.

Jon: We have the home court advantage. Who's the biggest distributor of consumer electronics in the world? It's HP.

Steven: Like Best Buy -- look at someone like Best Buy. We have a very very deep relationship with Best Buy, and you'll see it in their stores.

Jon: But that's one piece of the puzzle... it's not just smartphones. It's smartphones, and tablets, and PCs, and printers, and it's a set of cloud services that HP provides.

Engadget: Speaking of the cloud stuff -- you had issues with this whole iTunes sync thing -- do you see an opportunity to get into partnerships with companies like Rdio [streaming / cloud services]?

Steven: Think about what Sonos has done in the home, integrating different services into a clean interface that allows you source the content irrespective of where it comes from. They're a little company -- think about what HP can do building that kind of client, those business relationships, and putting it on 100 million devices a year.

Engadget: So you see opportunity there? Do services like Pandora become less like an app and more like a component of something else?

Steven: What you're describing is Music Synergy.

Engadget: Does that exist?

Steven: Stay tuned.

Engadget: Okay, shifting gears -- how do you make HP into a brand that has resonance to consumers? You sell a lot of laptops, but people don't feel passionate about the HP brand like they do with Apple, Google, Microsoft...

Steven: What you're describing is an opportunity -- which is, if you look at the folks that Todd and Leo are bringing in... you have to assume that we figured that out. As we go to market against the consumer, and you think about not just leveraging the PC business, and a brand that stands for integrity and trust... if you do the brand analysis, does it have some of the softer features that an Apple has? No it doesn't. But we can invest a great deal to change that.

Jon: As soon as we have products. We have nothing to advertise now. Soon you'll see the "Everybody On" campaign.

Steven: It starts tomorrow -- watch the Grammys this weekend.

Jon: And as we start shipping these, you'll see a compelling marketing campaign around them.

Engadget: Leo said he wants the products to be cooler than Apple -- what do you think of that?

Jon: When I talk to Leo he is very supportive. He says, 'what can I do to make this happen faster'? Leo has completely embraced this. He's a software guy who understands the importance of software. He likes gadgets. He's really jazzed about all this. When he speaks inside the company, he's always hitting on how important webOS and connectivity across devices is.

Engadget: Did you have to switch to an HP laptop when you came over?

Jon: I use everything.

Engadget: Except for the iPhone.

Steven: And iPads...

Engadget: you've never used an iPad?

Jon: I've held one.

Engadget: C'mon. Really?

Jon: Look, your guys' job is to look at everyone's experience and compare them -- my job is to create new experiences, and I don't know how to do that if I'm being impacted and influenced by what other people are doing.

Engadget: I know you have an army of people who look at this stuff, but they're not you -- don't you ever want to look at these deeply and try and figure out why are people so delighted by the competition's products?

Jon: I read about it on Engadget and I see the videos. I've been doing this for a really long time. We have a UI team that looks at all these products, a competitive analysis team that looks at these products. I want a fresh look at everything we make, and I don't want it to be influenced by what anyone else is doing. So I don't use the other stuff. This didn't start off as a religious thing -- when the iPhone came out, I was getting the Centro out the door and I was testing it 24 hours a day. It got turned into a religious thing but the reality is that if I'm going to spend my time I want to spend it on our devices and on our experiences and thinking about how we make them even better.

Additional reporting by Nilay Patel