Industry analysts are so-so about prospects for HP's TouchPad tablet, which goes on sale Friday. The temper and tone of their conclusions reflect many of the product reviews appearing today, in which the TouchPad often suffers in comparison to the industry-leading Apple iPad.
On paper, TouchPad has many of the features and capabilities of rival tablets, including those based on Google's Android operating systems. The pricing is comparable, $500 for the 16GB model and $600 for the 32GB model. Above this, the HP device features the innovative webOS firmware and user interface, acquired with the $1.2 billion buyout of Palm, which was completed a year ago almost to the day.
HP also has extensive relationships with retailer chains through which it will be able reach consumers, including Amazon, BestBuy, Radio Shack and Wal-Mart.
But analysts aren't convinced that these add up to a home run for TouchPad, or even a triple.
"Apple has such as big lead and Android has so many manufacturers at so many price points, that HP is squeezed between the high price/high functionality of the iPad and the variety and expected lower price points of Android," says Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile at Gartner. "The bugs listed by Walt Mossberg today in his Wall Street Journal review are what many saw in early RIM Playbooks as well. Quality can permanently kill a product's chances. His report is very serious."
Some reviewers said that they were told by HP that the company is aware of the bugs and has either already fixed some of them or will do so in an webOS firmware update that will be out "soon."
"HP is coming to the fight with slick, but thick and heavy, hardware," says Avi Greengarten, research director for consumer devices at Current Analysis, a research firm that specializes in tactical competitive analysis for companies. He also just published a hands-on review of TouchPad. "The [webOS] user interface is spectacular, but buggy. It, too, lacks a critical mass of tablet apps. If HP can iron out the bugs, it can make a play for consumers seeking a tablet for personal productivity, and then hope to attract more developers to the platform."
WebOS "looks very competitive," agrees Mykola Golovko, consumer electronics analyst at Euromonitor International, a global market research company. But on the downside, he notes that iPad 2 is lighter, thinner, has superior battery performance (though TouchPad is comparable or better to many Android rivals), and a wealth of tablet-specific applications (over 90,000 compared to the TouchPad's starting slate of about 300).
But having said that, Golovko is taking a long view of HP's webOS ambitions. He estimates global tablet sales will be about 32 million units in 2011, and 180 million by 2015.
"So, the TouchPad is largely meant to demonstrate the ability of WebOS to compete with Android, iOS, and eventually Windows 8" on tablets, he says. "As such, to measure the success or failure of the TouchPad solely in terms of sales figures and market share would be shortsighted. A more accurate measure would be the share of WebOS as a platform in computers and smartphones in 2012-2013, be it on HP-branded devices or licensed to third-party manufacturers."
TouchPad is intended as one element in an ecosystem of webOS products, from mobile devices to networked printers to PCs, all slated to be updated with the firmware, says Grupreet Kaur, tablet market analyst with Gap Intelligence, a marketing intelligence firm.
In the future, TouchPad will be a part of a webOS ecosystem, as HP introduces the firmware to an array of its other products, from printers to PCs, enabling them to share information and tasks quickly and easily. "People are more familiar with iOS and Android," she says. "WebOS is new and unique. Getting the message across [to potential buyers] will be very important."
Despite the lukewarm reviews, getting the word out will hinge on both HP's marketing campaign and the in-store user experience at retailers. The hands-on consumer experience here will be critical, Kaur says, and HP must ensure demonstration units are available, functional, and sales reps are well-trained on the product and its selling points.
Euromonitor's Golovko was expecting HP to sell TouchPad mainly through telecom carriers, where the price could be lowered through traditional carrier subsidies. "Selling the TouchPad at its normal retail price will be a challenge for HP as consumers will expect the product to be priced lower than iPad 2," Golovko says.
HP is "absolutely" competitive with Apple in terms of retail distribution but this is "absolutely not" a competitive advantage for HP, says Greengarten, of Current Analysis.
"Apple's problem is not that you can't buy an iPad at Walgreens," he says. "It's that Apple can't make them fast enough to stock Apple's stores, Best Buy, AT&T, and Verizon Wireless."
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.
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