The thinnest of thin clients
The ARM incursion will not be limited to mobile devices. HP Labs is researching alternative server microprocessors, and the client group is on the cusp of launching new desktop PCs for the third world that McKinney described as "the thinnest of thin clients," systems that may not use an x86 or Windows.
McKinney notes that three-quarters of the world population has never owned a PC, many due to marginal literacy. So HP is developing a touch-screen system based on gestures and icons that can help users get to entertainment, education and education services—even if they don't know anything more than how to dial a phone.
The systems are geared to run Web services and be so simple there is nothing to break, no reason to call a support person.
The developing-world PCs represent one of HPs hopes for new breakout products. Another effort swirls around work on the flexible displays at HP Labs McKinney showed at his Mobilebeat keynote.
Within two years, HP could field first-generation flexible display products. Their images will not be as bright and colorful as LCDs, but they could cost about 65 percent less, McKinney estimates. They will find new markets in retail signs and other apps that can't afford LCDs today, he said.
Flexible displays for mobile systems--ones that can be routinely rolled in and out to give small devices big displays—could be five years out, he said. "The biggest challenge is the resilience of the displays, being able to roll them multiple times—it's a materials science problem," he said.
Today devices are defined by the size of the display, keyboard and battery, McKinney said. "Flexible displays, virtual keyboards and portable power starts to unlock unique capabilities--and that's where you will see interesting product form factors," he said.
Meanwhile, the big task in front of HP is to establish WebOS as a significant mobile platform. That's not easy given developer intoxication with the Apple iPhone/iPad and Google Android environments.
McKinney says HP will deliver all sorts of volume WebOS products from smartphones and slates to printers and more. But so far there are only the relatively low volume Palm smartphones and a few apps.
To spark fires inside HP, McKinney launched an internal competition.
"I said for the first one thousand WebOS apps from within HP, I'll give the developer a free Palm phone--for any engineer getting a free gadget is a great incentive," said McKinney, himself an avowed gadget freak. "As of today, we're a little shy of 800 apps submitted from inside HP," he reported.
One engineer in HP's services group wrote over a weekend an app that can remotely monitor servers in a data center, he said.
It's a fun start to a long journey. The hard work of competing for developers and partners for WebOS outside HP is just beginning.
How much access developers and partners get to WebOS is unclear. The software is based on open source elements but is not itself open source, and HP will tightly guard some aspects of the code. Users can modify their WebOS devices any way they like, but so far HP has not said anything about what access to source code it will give its closest partners.
McKinney would not comment on whether HP might still develop some mobile or embedded products using alternative OSes such as Android, Windows Mobile or Meego. But clearly any such products would be exceptions.
"Our focus for is Windows 7 [for PCs] and WebOS [for mobile and embedded]--we want to get value for the $1.2 billion we spent on Palm and WebOS," said McKinney.