HP Could Become the Hardware-Agnostic UC Vendor of Choice

News Analysis: With the right partners or acquisitions, HP could turn a WebOS tablet into a compelling device customizable for any unified communications partner that comes along.

From the moment I first heard about Hewlett-Packard's acquisition of Palm, I've been pondering whether WebOS could play a key role in finally helping the hardware company define a cohesive unified communications strategy beyond its current approach of "provide hardware and partner." Eventually, I came to the conclusion that if HP makes the right additional acquisitions down the road, it won't need to.

HP is well-positioned to sell the pipes over which UC travels and it also has its Halo telepresence gear, but neither networking nor telepresence by themselves are UC. UC is all about software, open standards and interoperability-and while HP has been embracing the latter two fully and publicly since its acquisition of 3Com was completed, HP has never truly been a software company.

Instead, it is a hardware company that nearly encompasses enough to be the engine for UC, while not actually being a UC company itself. Check out this brochure, Unified Communications and Collaboration with HP and Microsoft. (PDF) HP provides the servers, storage, endpoints, telepresence equipment, networking and services. Microsoft brings home the software. Or perhaps Avaya, Aastra, or Mitel will. To deliver those hardware endpoints still missing from its stable-like desk phones, WiFi phones and lower to midrange video conferencing equipment-HP recently formed a partnership with Polycom.

The Palm acquisition was about Palm's newest software (and patents, but that is another story), not any of Palm's hardware, however. HP has already shown a willingness to jettison in-progress plans for a WebOS future, as rumors abound that the Windows 7-based Slate tablet project was shuttered in favor of a WebOS tablet soon to come. And I think HP might be able to take that base tablet in a bunch of different directions.

If what I saw on the Expo floor at Interop in April is any indication, the desk phone of the future looks a lot like a tablet, complete with a relatively large multitouch screen, ARM processor and Bluetooth handset. Alcatel-Lucent's OmniTouch 8082 My IC Phone may be billed as an executive-class SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) phone, but it's really a platform unto itself. It runs Linux, it supports HTML/JavaScript/AJAX and it runs applications without need for a specialized back-end server.

Alcatel-Lucent even launched a new developer community called the AAPP Factory to encourage ISVs to code for the device. Unfortunately, I expect Alcatel-Lucent will have trouble attracting the critical mass of developers needed to create a thriving app ecosystem around its phone.

On the other hand, what if HP were to try something similar with WebOS and its application ecosystem, with the added appeal to developers that their applications would be usable on a variety of devices rather than a single phone? The device may start its life cycle as tablet, but say HP were to partner with Polycom for an SIP stack and some design features, and perhaps with a rich media processing company like Global IP Solutions for excellent audio and video processing, it could have a pretty rich telephony and video solution that is also an excellent application platform. It could then turn around and sell that device to its software partners, customizing the operating system to prioritize the applications that matter to them for the particular product package.

I certainly don't think HP could make that happen on its own, which is why I suspect we'll see the company use more of its cash reserves along these lines within the next year. Polycom definitely seems like an interesting fit, given it is in the market for a buyer. Polycom's video products would round out HP's video conferencing portfolio to better compete with Cisco Systems following its Tandberg acquisition, and Polycom also has some battle-tested SpectraLink voice-over-WiFi technology that could be vital in delivering FMC (fixed mobile convergence) offerings to their software partners.

With a new array of smarter, customizable endpoints and making the notion of interoperability core to its value proposition, HP could then stay on the same course-delivering the hardware to power UC, while leaving the bulk of the software work to others.