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Meg Whitman Should Keep webOS to Make Android Better

When the first Palm Pre launched way back in 2009—before HP promised it would “double down” on webOS—I asked a product manager why the company was going it alone with a whole new platform instead of opting for Android. The answer: We want to be in control of our own destiny.

As the new leader of HP, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman is now in control of HP’s destiny, and she has promised to "continue to invest in servers, storage, networking, printing, PCs, and service offerings." That doesn't mean that she and the board won't still decide to spin off the business. I say keep it, and also hold onto what makes webOS great.

Many argue that spinning off the PC business will allow HP to focus more of its attention on higher-margin software services. That much is true, but the strategy is shortsighted. Think about what PCs are becoming. When Windows 8 arrives next year, the line between tablets and notebooks will start to blur, and the tablet category has a lot of growth ahead of it. HP would benefit from sticking it out and continuing to be a leader in personal computing.

In the meantime, HP could do a much better job of competing with Apple and Samsung on the higher end by pouring more resources into the Envy line and the instant-on, super-light Ultrabooks Intel is promoting. HP should also continue to differentiate on software, such as its CoolSense technology and the tweaks it has made to the Start menu on the new Pavilion dm1.

But HP's software jewel is webOS, and Whitman shouldn't sell the platform. When HP announced that it would be discontinuing sales of its TouchPad tablet, I argued that webOS itself should stay dead. But that doesn't mean its slick interface and other thoughtful ideas can't live on another platform. HP should use the best parts of its operating system to make Android more approachable while leveraging Google's huge head start in applications.

If you believe the early reports, Amazon’s tablet will look nothing like traditional Android, even though it’s based on Google’s OS. Amazon will offer access to its own services and apparently a completely unique carousel-like interface and a dock to pin your favorite item. Hmm, that sounds a lot like webOS. I bet a lot of people would be willing to buy a tablet with Android guts but with the polish of webOS’ multitasking-friendly UI.

Some of webOS’ other features could also help make Android more compelling on future HP tablets and phones. Just Type lets you find anything—from contacts and apps to web search results—just by typing in a search field on the home screen. And even the little things such as Pivot, a magazine inside the app store, could go a long way toward helping HP curate Android apps for users.

HP has confirmed that layoffs have begun in the webOS division, but it won’t take an army to integrate the platform with Android. If I were Meg Whitman, I would dedicate a team to that effort right now.

This mashup would be a challenge not only from an interface perspective but also in terms of optimizing performance. Nearly every time a phone or tablet maker tries to skin Android, it results in lag. But I suspect Amazon has successfully stripped away everything from Google’s OS except the necessary kernel—that it’s almost been rebuilt from the ground up. Fusion Garage is attempting to do something similar with its Grid 10 tablet, but it doesn’t have HP’s marketing muscle.

Granted, HP’s marketing and resources couldn’t help the TouchPad or the Pre, Pixi, or Veer phones, but that’s because the underlying OS didn’t have enough apps or snappy enough performance to win over the masses.

Now Meg Whitman should make the bold call of not only keeping PCs in house but accelerating their evolution by sprinkling the best of webOS on top of that little green robot.