Microsoft vs. HP: Nokia Deal Makes Them Enemies

It just got personal between the world’s largest PC maker and its largest partner. During the joint news conference to announce that Nokia would now be using Windows Phone 7 as its primary smart phone OS, Nokia CEO (and the former head of Microsoft’s business unit) bragged about the scale of this strategic partnership. He said “it’s now a three-horse race.” I’m assuming he was referring to Android, iOS, and Windows Phone, leaving no room for webOS at the top. It’s official: Microsoft and HP are at war.

Here’s how I see this battle shaping up.

In This Corner: HP webOS

Scale—it’s the same word HP used over and over to describe the advantage webOS now has with the launch of the TouchPad tablet and two new webOS phones this week. HP (a former licensee of Windows Mobile) paid $1.2 billion for Palm, but the first fruits of their marriage are a mixed bag.

The new TouchPad tablet from HP innovates in some compelling ways. For instance, the 1.6-pound device automatically stacks activities in its slick interface, making it easy for users to multitask. The new webOS 3.0 also takes unobtrusive notifications a step further, allowing you to swipe through e-mails at the top of the screen without having to open the e-mail app.

What impressed me most, though, is how pervasive and integrated HP has made social networking. You can see your friends’ Facebook comments on a given photo and reply right within the photos app. And if you just want to post a status update, you can tap the Just Type bar on the home screen and start pecking away on the touch keyboard. If HP can convince more developers to embrace webOS, the TouchPad will be a strong competitor to the iPad and the slew of Android 3.0 slates coming to market.

The two new webOS phones don’t push the envelope as much as they cram and stretch the platform into smaller and larger designs. The Veer is a tiny vanity phone, and the Pre 3 has a large, cushy keyboard and a fast 1.4-GHz processor but won’t hit the market until this summer. HP thought outside the box in how the two handsets interact with the tablet. You can touch the phone to the slate to share URLs, and Bluetooth syncing lets you see who’s calling on the TouchPad, as well as text message from one to the other.

HP’s scale will certainly give webOS a leg up in retail for the TouchPad, but it won’t necessarily help win over wireless carriers or phone buyers. However, the fact that HP plans to put webOS on PCs will be a fantastic billboard for the platform. The company boasted at its launch event that it ships 120 PCs every 60 seconds, or 60 million annually. Even though webOS will share space with Windows on laptops and desktops, I can easily envision webOS taking over HP consumer products and Windows becoming the de facto business OS.

And in This Corner: Microsoft + Nokia

Even though Android and iOS have all the momentum right now, there’s no denying that Nokia is still the world’s leading smart phone maker. It shipped twice as many units as Apple in the fourth quarter (according to IDC), and it shipped 100 million smart phones in 2010. That’s double what Apple and RIM sold combined. Does adding Windows Phone 7 to that mix give Nokia an edge over webOS?

To some degree, Microsoft’s OS is more intuitive than webOS. The Live Tile interface is friendlier and more customizable, and you don’t have to master any gestures just to get around. Palm has admitted that getting consumers over that hump in the first few minutes is critical to them embracing the experience instead of returning the phone. And in those first few seconds on a Windows Phone device, you see exciting and familiar options such as Office and Xbox Live.

The distinct webOS advantage is multitasking. Not only was it there on day one, it’s also a hallmark of the platform. Windows Phone 7 doesn’t let you use third-party apps in the background. The OS doesn’t even offer cut and paste yet. Nevertheless, when you combine Nokia’s excellent hardware with Microsoft’s slick software, it could be a potent combination.

I say “could” because Microsoft sold more ancient Windows Mobile devices in the fourth quarter than it did Windows Phone 7 handsets. But the platform hasn’t yet matured, and when you add some of Nokia’s other assets to the table—including Nokia’s applications and Maps—there’s no question that HP should have a very tough competitor in the phone space.

Who Will Win?

I’d really have to get my hands on the first Windows Phone 7-powered Nokia phone to say whether HP or Microsoft will gain the advantage in the mobile device war. But right now it looks as though HP will have a sizable head start in tablets and Microsoft will be the bigger player in phones.

To a certain extent, the partnership between Nokia and Microsoft should increase the pressure on Microsoft to bring a Windows Phone-based tablet to market. The world may not wait for the next Windows to show up on slates. At the same time, Microsoft’s tie-up with Nokia just made it harder for HP to entice developers to create apps for webOS. The TouchPad tablet will be a hugely important back door for creating apps that run on webOS phones.

One thing’s for sure. For the first time ever, Microsoft and HP are now competing for the same customers.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.