The Engadget Interview: HP's Stephen DeWitt discusses the state of webOS

The last time we spoke with Stephen DeWitt, the head of HP's webOS global business unit was on the defensive about the TouchPad. In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- the anticipation of the device, the first webOS tablet received a lukewarm reception at hands of reviewers. DeWitt vigorously defended the slate against the critics, suggesting that technology writers had been approaching the product the wrong way. A lot has happened since that conversation, of course, including reports of unmoved stock and, more significantly, yesterday's news that HP would effectively be discontinuing production on its webOS devices, the TouchPad included.

There's been a good deal of confusion around precisely what yesterday's announcement means for both the company and the mobile operating system that it picked up with its purchase of Palm back in April of last year. In spite of his understandably packed schedule, DeWitt sat down with us to set the record straight and shed some light on the future of webOS -- a future both he and the company remain rather optimistic about.

Read on for the full interview.

We heard you're buying Motorola, is that right?

No, but you know certainly the landscape is fluid, and I think it speaks to the fact that this is the mobile space and all aspects of it and the future of connected devices -- the company's role in that equation is being vetted out right now. So it is a very fluid market and there are going to be a lot of decisions. Obviously, Google made a decision that has pluses and minuses associated with it. We've made some decisions that have pluses and minuses associated with it, but we did it for a reason, and I think you're going to see more activity. I certainly don't think things are going to slow down over the next handful of weeks or quarters. This is important stuff.

Can you give us just a quick overview of exactly what that decision is, because I think there's been a lot of confusion on exactly what the announcement means?

I'll try to use See Spot Run-type metaphors through all of this. What we decided not to do is build a device-end of the equation. What we have decided to do is invest in the webOS as a platform so that we can deliver the type of innovation in that platform to fulfill our vision of connected devices. There's a lot of excitement around tablets that are out there. Apple's success in the pad market -- remember it took a long time for Apple to get to the market. These have not been products that have been in the market for ten years. These are products that have been in the market for a couple of years. These form factors have got everybody excited about what the potential is from an application perspective, and applications are a lot more than just tens of thousands of games. Applications are gonna be defined by a lot of different things: vertical solutions... literally, I could spend an hour going through the various applications that are going to emerge that are ultimately going to be delivered on a connected device, whatever that connected device may be.

And so we have gone down a path, and it was kind of the legacy Palm path, if you will, and we were vertically integrated. We did hardware design, we did hardware -- we basically did the whole stack, from the hardware up, and there advantages to doing that. There are also disadvantages to doing that, and so we made the decision to focus on the platform. Focus on the development of that platform to give us flexibility for alternatives, if you will, in terms of how we could bring webOS to the market and expand the ecosystem, and those opportunities and alternatives are pretty obvious. We can look at licensing; we can look at OEM and ODM-type relationships. There isn't a one-size-fits-all here, because a one-size approach is going to limit the opportunity of delivering tens of billions of connected devices -- at least in our opinion. So we made that decision.

It doesn't mean -- in any way, shape or form, at all -- that we are abandoning webOS. In fact, we're allowing webOS to fulfill the vision that I think everyone in the industry wants to see, and that is a viable alternative to other tablet or mobile operating systems that are out there that have their own baggage.

Is this a vision that you as a company had foreseen for some time now? Or is this something that you've arrived at given the ways in which the hardware has performed?

That's a good question. I'd say a little bit of both. The vision that we have about -- and we've been talking about this for months. I've certainly been out there broadly talking about maintaining your state and the design center being you, and that at the end of the day the blurring between personal lives, professional lives, content creation, content consumption, all of the various bits and bobs associated with your eyeballs looking at a screen and what is on there and how that content's delivered. That's all been in the vision, but vision's just vision. It isn't the execution path.

So, to the second part of your question, as we continued down the execution path, it became very clear that the investment that would have been required to maintain that model would have been a pretty high investment cost, relative to an alternative approach that would introduce significantly more flexibility into the system, allow us to focus our resources on what matters here, and what matters is the webOS. The platforms, that delivery vehicles, the car in which webOS drives or how it is delivered, is secondary to it being delivered. What's in it? What innovative areas do we invest in? What's going to give us competitive advantage and differentiation relative to other players in the market? You know, there's no question that trying to do a me-too strategy or a fast-follower strategy in a market that is going through rapid redefinition right now, isn't going to fly. And that's why my answer is a little bit of both.

Has the company been in talks with third party manufacturers?

Of course we have.

I don't suppose you can mention any?

Nope. Nope.

Does this decision have anything to do with Windows 8 and the way we're seeing Microsoft being a little more focused on the tablet?

I don't know if you're going to find any company out there that's had a longer-term relationship with Microsoft than we have. I mean, we've got intimacy up and down the stack with Microsoft, from the data center to the edge and all points in between. And I think we all know, and I certainly don't need to comment on the challenges Microsoft had in the mobility space, and just like the conversation we were having about Moto and Google, Microsoft is making moves, Nokia is making moves, others are making moves, because you have you have to refine your portfolio, your strategy. You've gotta make decisions in terms of what your cloud vision is going to be. Is it going to be open? Is it going to be inclusive? Is it going to be closed door? Is it just my way or the highway? And I think that generally, our approach to Microsoft is no different today or after this announcement than it was 72 hours ago.

We're talking with Microsoft about Windows tablets. We have a Windows tablet in the market right now that is very much a solution in our vertical approaches -- not something that we put on the shelves of Best Buy, because, obviously, if you're going to be on the shelves of Best Buy, you're competing against the iPad. So we're certainly looking at a broad approach to not only the devices themselves, but how all of these OSs are going to mature and collaborate with one another in the cloud future. We certainly -- and this again isn't new news -- I was talking about this when I joined the team four weeks ago, and we've been talking about this broadly for the last handful of months: our approach is to be open and collaborative in our cloud vision, and that's at all levels. As opposed to being closed and telling developers, "This is the model you're going to deal with and that's it."

So does that mean that we should expect to see more services for syncing across clouds? There are many services talking about syncing data within a single cloud, but, of course, there are multiple clouds. Is this something we should be expecting HP to be focusing on going forward?

I won't specifically comment on anything that HP is working on in that area, but your assumption that that kind of cross-cloud pollination is a good idea -- we agree.

Is this move away from these specific devices, has this freed the resources at HP as far as working on additional pieces of hardware within the company that utilize the OS?

The first part of your question was a resounding yes, but the second part -- the shift in models does give us tremendous flexibility in terms of where we invest our resource. The primary, the overwhelming investment that is going to come from that is into the webOS platform: innovative new areas / trajectories for our development efforts, global efforts, a lot of things that we've got on the drawing board that are going to matter in the market down the road. Not necessarily in a pari passu bake off against an Android tablet or an iOS tablet. We're thinking about the future.

We're also thinking about what we've heard absolutely in an avalanche from our commercial customers, that they are unsatisfied with the devices that are in the market today. And this isn't just simply about creating a management infrastructure that allows you to wipe info off one of these devices -- I mean, that's table stakes. This is about creating truly integrated solutions, where an endpoint has to have a certain set of characteristics to it, and a certain way that applications are delivered, and a certain human experience that goes with that. This company has a long heritage of building solutions. Think of the medical industry. Think of all the industries where HP has built solutions and built markets out of that. We're going to take the same approach with the webOS and that will manifest itself over time, across a wide arena of devices.

It sounds to me that you are at least at the present time taking the possibility of, not a copy-cat device, but a standard consumer tablet or a standard consumer smartphone running webOS off the table, for your own production.

For our own soups and nuts, I'd say that's fair -- yeah. In terms of us doing everything up the stack, what we announced yesterday is we're not building the devices.