The Engadget Interview: HP's Stephen DeWitt

HP caught the industry by surprise yesterday, announcing some serious executive reshuffling, with Stephen DeWitt, the company's former head of Personal Systems Group Americas stepping up to fill in the lead role at HP's webOS global business unit, while Jon Rubinstein will be in charge of PSG globally. This game of executive musical chairs raised a lot of questions with regards to the state of the company's beloved but arguably underperforming mobile operating system, particularly in the wake of the TouchPad's lukewarm reception amongst reviewers, ourselves included.

We managed to grab some time with DeWitt, in spite of what's sure to be a fairly packed schedule at the moment, discussing the impact of the TouchPad's reviews, the present and future of webOS, and what smartphone he carries around in his pocket.

Can you give us a little background on yourself?

I've been running the PC business of HP, here in the Americas. I joined HP three years ago. The "FedEx" version of what I've been doing: I'm a longtime techie, did my first startup when I was a teenager, and then served on the executive staffs of Symantec in the early 90s, Cisco in the mid-90s, left there and did my first full-blown startup as the CEO of Cobalt Networks. We were a pioneer in the server appliance space. Everybody said we couldn't take on companies like HP and Dell, but we did a pretty darn good job. We took the company public and then sold it to Sun for a couple of billion dollars earlier this century. And then I stayed on with Sun to redefine their Edge computing strategy.

I left to do another startup called Azul Systems, which was a pioneer in massive throughput computing, primarily designed for massive parallel workloads like transaction processing, reservation systems, etc. So I've seen the first unit go out the door, and I've also seen the 100 millionth unit go out the door. I've operated in every geography around the globe. I had the opportunity to work with HP -- the goal of bringing me on was to transform what has historically been a business defined by the gross margin and transaction (how many dollars can you eke out of a PC?), to a relationship-driven model. And that's what we've been working on. A ton of stuff has been accomplished. I'll bring that same passion for experience and global reach to webOS.

Are there any specific products that you've worked on at your time at HP that you can point to as successes?

It's not just products. It's really experiences more than anything. I'll give you an example -- in the last 24 months, we've opened nearly 275 HP stores. You don't see any of them here, because all of them have been opened in places like Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. We have dramatically overhauled our online experience. We're in the process right now of moving from a transactional model to a relationship model. Our support systems -- literally everything around the products -- is moving to a model of elite support 7 / 24 / 365.

Look what we're doing with the Butler system surrounding the TouchPad. We know people are going to get excited when they come home and tear that shrinkwrap off. We want to make sure that experience is flawless. That Butler paradigm is extending across everything we do. Our transformation comes in lot of different sizes and shapes.

Are you interested in expanding the HP Store model into the States?

Well, we already have awesome retail representation here in the States. If you walk into a Best Buy this weekend and look around, I think you're going to see an evolved experience from what the old retail experience has been in the US. The era of having a table full of PCs with no identity around them is going away, and it's been replaced with a much more intimate experience. We're working with people like Best Buy and Staples -- Staples does a fantastic job of moving customer data, of making sure that initial experience is great. And we want the Butler paradigm to extend throughout all of our retailer partners.

Are we bringing HP stores to the US? That's not in our plan. But what is in our plans is transforming the retail experience, and we'll work with our partners to do that.

You have a lot of experience being in the position of the underdog, prior to working at HP. Is that how you view webOS in its current state?

I appreciate the underdog, I guess, because I'm a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, and you have to be an underdog. But I'm a son of an entrepreneur, and my dad beat into my head as a young man that I should build my own businesses, innovate, don't let other people set my agenda. I went to an entrepreneurial college -- Babson. I did my first startup when I was a teenager. I love technology. It's the only industry I've been in, and I've had the opportunity to play on a lot of sides.

Are we an underdog in this battle? Look, Apple came to the market two years before we did with their iPad. We know all about their iPad, we know all about what it does well, we know all about what Apple's doing. That's great. I've always applauded companies in this industry that have been innovation pioneers. HP has a long history of being an innovation pioneer, as well. In fact, we've created many, many industries, we've spun off many companies. HP has innovative roots. That's why I came here, to innovate at a different scale.

I think that the future of computing is going to be about maintaining your state, about taking everything that matters to you, your content, your apps, and holding your state against any screen you look at. That's the future of computing. In order to get from where we are today, the devices, the technology, the platform, the developer community, all of the global
ramifications to that, you're not going to do this in a federated model, you're going to have to do this with a well-orchestrated, global community that can drive this. I think that's as big an opportunity and forward pass as anywhere in the industry, and that's why I'm fired up to do it.

You have a lot of experience on the business side of the spectrum -- do you see the TouchPad as a primarily business-minded tablet?

No, because we're not looking at business and consumer, anymore. It's you. All that matters is you. You're the design center. It's not, "oh, here, we want to sell a product to someone who works at Bank of America," or, "we want to sell a product to Jane Doe in Findlay, OH." We want to sell products that allow your individual identity to be reflected in that device, and we want to make accessibility to that flawless -- all the human factors: touch, voice, video. One of the beautiful things about webOS is how awesome the accessibility is in the platform, and if we can add to that accessibility unique services for the developer community, like Synergy and a whole slew of other things we've talked about (and believe me, we've got a lot more in the hopper), we think that's a pretty powerful combo.

There are certain elements that need to be incorporated into the device if it's going to appeal to users on the enterprise and SMB side. Do you feel that the TouchPad fulfills those needs in its current state?

Absolutely, and if they're not there, we're probably aware of them. And one point I want to make on this is -- hold small businesses aside at the moment -- one size does not fit all. And one of the realities about selling to the commercial world is, you can't just throw it over the fence and say, "oh, I'm excited about that product, make it work." You've got to customize, you've got to bring an application portfolio out to these devices. It's got to have all levels of security, from remote wipe if the device goes rogue -- how do you make sure it doesn't go bad -- to the connection into corporate data.

And by the way, not everyone's legacy apps were built the same way by the same code base. There's a lot of work there, and a key part of what we're gonna do is build the sort of mobility practices that can be extended both through our service organization -- and as you know, we've got a pretty substantial service organization. We acquired EDS a couple of years ago. There's 175,000 employees over there that are all day, every day running the IT infrastructure for a lot of big name companies that we all know and love.

We're gonna bring this portfolio into that world and allow them to tailor solutions to their specific environment. You can't fake that. There's work there, and we think we're well positioned to deliver that.

I imagine you've seen most, if not all of the TouchPad reviews. The reception for a lot of reviewers has been fairly lukewarm. What's your reaction to the criticism?

Well, look what we got criticized on. I've gotta love this. First people are saying that we've got a fat device. You need a cord to power an iPad. You don't in our world. The fact that we're a couple of millimeters fatter is because we have Touchstone, and Touchstone allows our device to be inductively powered. And that Touchstone feature allows us to do things like touch-to-share. So we traded off a couple of millimeters -- which at the end of the day, isn't going to have any impact on functionality -- for features and function.

We have other devices that we're going to work on that are going to have other form factors and weights, etc. But we don't lament the fact that we think we offered an awesome ease of use capability for the tradeoff of a couple of millimeters. That's one issue we got hit with in the press, and I think that, at the end of the day, users will see the value, and we just have to communicate that.

The second piece is application availability. This is probably the most simplistic, no-brainer argument there is. Of course everybody's going to come out and say, "well, you don't have the apps Apple has." Well, no kidding, Apple's been on the market for a couple of years. We have more native TouchPad apps than Apple had when they launched the iPad. Everybody understands there's a period of time when you're working at inspiring the developer community to get all of the apps out. We have all of the key apps out, and we're going to have a ton more every day. There were some questions about the Movie Store app and a couple of others -- they weren't ready and weren't planned to be ready until the 17th of July, and they will be ready by the 17th of July. We're going to be delivering over-the-air updates, which will have no complexity for customers, on a very regular basis. We're working on an over-the-air update that we expect to have out by the end of the month.

This is one of the slings and arrows that you get by showing products before they're ready for the reviewer community. We knew full well that we were going to get this sort of feedback, and we're very confident that we've addressed every single one that was in there.

Did you feel that any of the criticisms were apt, that you plan to work on, moving ahead?

Um...yeah. And you know, it's not just the feedback you get from reviewers, it's also the fact that our user community is extremely vocal. On the thousands of units that are already out there, the feedback that we're getting from the customer base is fantastic. One of the things that's new for HP -- and I'll admit it, though I don't want to be defensive, because it's nothing to be defensive about -- we haven't done this in the past. We haven't had assets like this. We haven't had a community, per se. And so, we're getting used to this regular cadence of delivering updates. Remember, this is an environment that evolves every single day.

Six months from now, we're going to have a very different discussion about apps. My hope is that in six months we're going to have a discussion about all of the new stuff that we brought to the market, all of the innovation that we've brought to the market, not just playing catch up, so our number is as big as somebody else's number.

What can we expect for the 17th?

That's our official retail launch date. What you're gonna see is all of the major retailers will have their advertising and their promotions. This weekend is really the beginning of the month-long back to school season. We very consciously picked this as a launch date. Look for major promotional activities, broadly. Not only across all of our webOS devices, but across our PC products as well. Look for a lot of in-store experiences: merchandising, labor, promotions, bundles -- all sorts of things will kick off on the 17th.

And the OTA update?

That will be out by the end of the month, as well. We're trying real hard to match the 17th, but you can at least expect it by the end of the month. And, by the way, there will be another update after that and another update after that one. That's the way it's going to be in the future, and I think the elegance of that is awesome for end users. Their products are literally getting better, and they don't even know it.

These updates are coming soon after the initial reviews and feedback. Are these lessons learned from the device, or are they features that didn't arrive in time?

A little bit of both. Yes, yes, and yes. There are bug fixes, there are new features, there are new apps, new capabilities, all of the above.

You mentioned the trouble you may have in communicating how this device is better than the iPad.

My point was, reviewers -- and this is the kind of thing that drives people nuts -- one writeup was, "HP has a really elegant OS, we love it, but also a big, clumsy design." Are you kidding me? There's nothing big and clumsy about this design. Pick it up. Hold it. There's nothing big and clumsy here. Everyone wants to go, "look at the iPad 2" -- and by the way, Apple spends a lot of time marketing thin and light. That's great. We've spent a lot of time marketing thin and light in our PCs. And we are certainly going to have a broad portfolio of products that are thin and light. We made a decision for capabilities that we feel are meaningful, making it a couple of millimeters bigger. That's not something that we lament. We wish that the reviewers had said, "by the way, the fact that it's a couple of millimeters bigger is because you don't have to charge it." It's because we do touch-to-share, it's because of these unique capabilities. We clearly didn't do a good enough job in communicating that and we're going to fix that.

Will you fix that by comparing the device directly to the iPad?

Apple's Apple, and HP's HP. We feel very confident in our products and where we're going. We believe that we're going to be more open than some of our competitors, and at the same time, not a loose federation. We're going to be very global, and we think that, at the end of the day, we're going to bring a value proposition that can stand on its own. Are we nervous about competitors? Heck, we're nervous about everyone that's out there. We have a lot experience about being nervous about a lot of competitors. When you operate at the size and scale and number of geographies that we do, we get in the competitive game. But we're focused on what we're doing right now, and at the end of the day, we've got to win in the market, and we know that.

You made references to other products that will be using the webOS platform. We've heard mention of printers and other products of that nature in the past. Can you talk about specifics?

No. And I'm not trying to be glib here. There's no question when we lifted the shroud on webOS, we gave our competition fair warning, as far as what we're bringing to the market. I'm sure glad we didn't launch at CES in that cluster of products, because we're not slapping Android on a device and calling it a day. We're creating something meaningful that fits in an end-to-end ecosystem and ultimately can deliver against the vision that I shared earlier about holding you in-state. And we wanted to have the ability to control the experience from top to bottom, and that's what we wanted to do. We have a great and multi-decade relationship with Microsoft. We're going to bring webOS to our PCs -- not to replace Windows. That's absurd. We're going to marry together what we think are unique capabilities of both platforms. And we're going to continue to explore ways to do that. We've got a very aggressive smartphone plan of record and a very aggressive tablet plan of record. We have a lot of products that we're working on, and we will lift the kimono when we're ready to bring it to the market.

And there's the possibility of moving beyond the PC, tablet, and smartphones for webOS?


Can you speak at all about what Jon [Rubinstein]'s new role will be?

We're going to have Jon bring his magic to a lot of things we do. I'm going to be able to leverage Jon day to day as I come up to speed with some of the initiatives that his team is working on, and as we drive this scale phase, Jon and I will be lockstep with a lot of that. Beyond what we're doing in the webOS world, we're going to bring Jon's product expertise and vision to our broad PSG portfolio. Jon is a national treasure, and you'll see his expertise in a lot of our products.

Can I ask really quickly what kind of phone you're carrying around at the moment?

I'm going to admit it: I carry the Veer. Everyone kind of says it's more of a phone targeted at the female demographic and the young demographic, but I like the fact that it's small. I always use Bluetooth, so having its small form factor in my pocket just works for me. This thing is just so little. It's perfect and everything is synced with everything else. I use my Veer with my TouchPad. It works for me.