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HP Sees Cloudy Skies Ahead

Can the world’s biggest PC maker introduce cloud computing to the masses?
February 18, 2011

Last week, Hewlett-Packard released several mobile devices running WebOS, an operating system that it acquired last summer when it bought Palm. HP’s two new smart phones and tablet computer showed that the company is anxious to get a larger slice of the market for portable devices. But at the launch event, company executives mentioned that they plan to ship other devices, including PCs and printers, with WebOS installed. As the world’s largest PC maker, HP may be in a unique position to promote personal cloud computing, a technology that makes data and applications accessible from whatever device a person is using.

Google is pursuing a similar vision with Chrome OS, which has gotten a lot of attention as an example of personal cloud computing. This operating system is designed to store almost no files or software. Instead of using programs installed on the computer, users must access all software through a Web browser. Google has distributed a laptop running Chrome OS, the Cr-48, to demonstrate and test the operating system.

WebOS is less radical than Chrome OS. It uses the cloud mainly to access user data and make it readily accessible from any device. But if HP can move fast enough, WebOS could be well positioned to take advantage of a general shift toward cloud computing, says Jeffrey Hammond, a principal analyst with Forrester Research. As people switch from their computers to their smart phones to their tablets and back, Hammond says, they find that the idea of cloud computing begins to make a lot more sense. “People are now more likely to use multiple smart devices,” he says. “The rate of context switching is higher, and so is the desire to have the exact same information on every device.”

If tech companies can build devices that are convenient, reasonably priced, and secure, with seamless interconnections, “most people may adopt completely cloud-facilitated lives,” says Janna Anderson, a professor in the school of communication at Elon University and lead author of the Future of the Internet survey series for Pew Internet. A survey that Anderson recently conducted suggests that adoption of smart phones and other portable devices is driving people to store their data in the cloud.

Anderson also sees cloud computing extending to “a world in which everyday objects have their own IP addresses and can be tied together in the same way that people are now tied together by the Internet.”

Hammond says HP’s plan to use WebOS in printers fits in with this, but he adds that “a lot comes down to execution.” If HP can share data seamlessly between lots of devices, Hammond believes, it would open up interesting new possibilities in personal computing. For one thing, this could mean the end of device drivers—code that needs to be installed in order to use a particular peripheral device. If companies start connecting devices over the network, then users might not have to worry about installing the proper software. Google has taken a step in this direction with a service called CloudPrint, which allows users to send documents to printers over the Internet.

Jimmy Lin, who is an associate professor in the iSchool at the University of Maryland and directs that university’s Cloud Computing Center, notes that the idea of using the network to access data and computing power has been around for decades. But HP’s vision for WebOS, he says, is important because the company has such a strong presence in the market. HP could make the cloud “more tangible” to people, Lin says, by showing what’s possible with an array of devices all connected through the cloud.

“The challenge is how to create a seamless experience on every form factor,” Lin says. HP already sells lots of printers, PCs, and other devices. If WebOS can bring them together, HP might well bring cloud computing to the masses.

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