Has HP done enough to rival the iPad?

Hewlett-Packard launched a slick-looking tablet computer on Wednesday based on a new release of its webOS, but the question many are now asking is, has HP done enough to steal some business from Apple’s trailblazing iPad?

HP launched the HP TouchPad at an event for press and analysts in San Francisco on Wednesday morning. It also unveiled two smartphones based on the same software: the Veer, a mini-smartphone about the height of a credit card, and the Pre3, a full-fledged smartphone aimed at business users.

Hewlett-Packard shows off its TouchPad tablet this week in San Francisco.

Physically, the 10-inch TouchPad certainly looks like the iPad, though it’s hard to imagine a completely original design for a touchscreen tablet. But what HP hopes will set it apart is the software, in particular the tight integration it says it can offer among devices running webOS.

“Synergy is our central idea,” said Jon Rubinstein, the former Palm CEO who joined HP when it bought Palm last year. “Because when we bring different things together—whether it’s different applications, different software, different devices, even different companies—and get them to work in sync, we achieve a powerful result that’s much greater than the sum of its parts.”

That’s a tough way to differentiate yourself against Apple, which is known for the tight integration among its own products: Plug an iPhone into your Macbook, and it syncs at the click of a button. Download music to a Mac from iTunes, and it rolls effortlessly to your iPod the next time you plug it in.

But HP claims to have a good integration story of its own. For a start, it says it will build a wider universe of webOS devices. In addition to the tablet and smartphones, webOS will provide the technology for its Web-connected printers, and as Todd Bradley, head of HP’s Personal Systems Group, revealed Wednesday, it will find its way eventually into HP PCs, though details won’t come until later in the year.

That synergy, then, can take several forms. As HP showed Wednesday, it has made it easy for TouchPad users (and probably webOS smartphone users as well) to print directly to an HP Web-connected printer, from inside a photo or e-mail application, for example. HP says this will work with most of its printers released in the past few years.

WebOS also has a novel “touch to share” capability, which lets a user physically tap a smartphone against a TouchPad to share URLs between the devices. In the example shown on Wednesday, if a person looks up information about a restaurant at home, then wants to take that information out of the house, they can tap their phone on their TouchPad, and in a few seconds the same URL opens up on the smartphone automatically.

Voicemail and text messages received on a smartphone can also be made to pop up on the TouchPad, to avoid missing messages, HP says. And with a feature called Synergy, users can sign into their Facebook, Google, Microsoft Exchange, LinkedIn and Yahoo accounts from a webOS device, and any contacts, calendar entries and e-mails from those accounts will be downloaded to the webOS device.

HP claims there are other features that will set webOS apart, including the way several applications can be active on the screen at one time. They appear as what HP calls “cards”—basically windows—that can be flicked off the home screen with the swipe of a finger, or stacked on top of each other for related tasks.

“WebOS shows you your activities in the form of cards, not a sea of application icons on numerous home screens,” HP said in a statement, an apparent swipe at both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android OS.

But good technology is only part of the battle. Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner, noted that HP is taking on a lot for a company that is relatively new to the consumer electronics business. The company is assuming control for the whole platform—software, hardware and applications.

“This is an entirely new business,” he said. “There are a lot of challenges.”

What’s more, he said, the version of webOS shown Wednesday is basically a new operating system, and HP will have to convince users to take a chance with a new platform instead of sticking with Apple’s established iOS.

“The hardware looks nice,” said Roger Kay, industry analyst with EndPoint Technologies. But HP has yet to reveal any prices, he noted, and by the time the TouchPad appears, there will be even more tablets on sale based on Google’s Android software, plus the PlayBook from Research in Motion—not to mention an expected “version two” of the iPad.

Kay also noted that users will need both a TouchPad and a webOS phone to get the full experience. “If your contacts aren’t in a webOS environment … you have to start from the beginning,” he said.

HP also must still attract an army of software developers to build applications, Kay said.

But HP insisted webOS will be an attractive target for developers. The company claims to sell, on average, 120 printers and 120 PCs every minute. “You do the math on two PCs a second and two printers a second,” Bradley said. “You easily exceed 100 million Web-connected devices annually.”

And despite Apple’s early lead, the market for tablet computers is still young. “We’re still in the early stages of a market that’s going to continue to grow in size, importance and relevance,” Bradley said.

Agam Shah of IDG News Service in New York provided additional reporting.

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