HP’s WebOS VP Richard Kerris On Being Fifth Man In A Four-Man Race

When HP (NYSE: HPQ) relaunched the WebOS and debuted its newest devices running the platform in February, its top execs made a big point of saying it was doing things differently from more established platforms like Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.
Whether HP succeeds still remains to be seen — devices like the new Pre and the new TouchPad tablet have yet to hit the market — but today it made a crucial step to achieving its goal. At a developer event in London this week, it unveiled a new application developer framework and SDK for developers to make apps for the new OS.
Ahead of the event, mocoNews spoke with Richard Kerris, HP’s new VP of worldwide developer relations for webOS, about the challenges and opportunities ahead as HP makes another crack at the upper ranks of the smartphone and tablet business — not just in attracting customers, but also developers to make amazing content. “We’re the fifth man in a four-man race,” he told me. “We need to earn our way in. But we’re committed.”
Why have you come to London to announce this news?
We need to be humble, to work with and listen to developers and respond to them. A select group has already had the SDK in prelease but we came here to support the wider developer community. We thought, “let’s use that opportunity to drive to the deadline an get this out.” We want to be global with everything we do. Our developers have stuck with us thick and thin and we want to make sure we are doing this right, not just with a U.S.0-centric view and not neglecting in different parts of the world. But also the role of the international developer is that they’re all just developers to us. Together, they are the key to success.”
How much of a challenge do you think it is entering the smartphone race effectively from the ground up at this point?
We’re the fifth man in a four-man race. We need to earn our way in. But we’re committed. This isn’t a case of, if you’re not in the game now you’re not in it for good. WebOS is designed for the long haul.
What would you say sets WebOS apart?
It’s different from the rest because it’s truly untethered OS. The first thing the other OSs tells you when you first plug in your handsets or tablets? Plug me into your computer. With the iPhone you can’t even get an OS update without that. For us, we think it should be about turning the device on. That’s all. We want to have seamless availability, to connect to different devices without having to physically connect to those devices, via the cloud. Whatever you have should be accessible anywhere and everywhere. We’re working internally and beta testing that. We also have a great email client, browser and calendaring system. These are all natural progressions to the desktop.
[nb. It’s not entirely true that all other smartphone OS platforms require tethering to a PC to get updates, Android being one case in point.]
This fits in with HP’s ultimate strategy to make WebOS something that can also sit on top of PCs and other devices. HP wants this to “sit” on Windows-based devices such as the PC. So what about Windows phones running WP7?
I don’t know if we will do that. We’re still figuring that out. I will say we’re a large provider of windows machines have a great relationship. We’re not looking to replace that. We’re looking to extend it. I do see an opportunity of webos on other devices like printers, using a thin client.
Given the big shift to licensing OS platforms from the likes of Android and Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT), why has HP decided to put so much effort into the homegrown OS?
Ultimately, it offers a better experience to the customer. Our friends in Cupertino have shown that to a great degree. If I get an Android device, which flavor have I got? Which apps work where? That’s a whole lot of confusion and that will exist for a long time to come. We’d rather offer a higher quality experience rather than pushing out something like the others. We don’t want to get in line. And it allows us to do things that we wound’t be able to do.
Would you ever license out WebOS? Following this idea of thin clients and using in many other devices…
It remains to be seen whether we license it out. We are not aggressively looking at that right now. But we are interested in talking to those outside the mobile space — for example those in the automotive sector. Those are the types of companies we would entertain before other [OEMs]. But again we have to earn our way into that space, given the trial and errors with Palm. But we recognize that we’ll get there. I love being the underdog, and we know we’ve got something great. But it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, a multiyear process, it’s not next quarter but the next five years.
I can say that we’re committing to WebOS in all devices. HP is aiming for 100 million devices within the next year, all of them combined. We want WebOS in all of them now, but we are also being realistic.
What are you hearing from developers?
When I talk to developers now, they want to know what is the investment they have to make [to make a WebOS app], and what’s the opportunity for them. We don’t have a very big footprint [with WebOS now] but if you look at the investment very easy to add us into the mix, so for example if the app is already on iOS, a lot of developers should be able to add to apps to our platform in a matter of days.
Where are you with some of the newer innovations we’ve seen from the other app stores, such as in-app purchasing?
Our plan is for in-app purchasing to be available when the WebOS store comes out with devices this summer. I don’t want to make any more of a commitment for that yet. This is part of a brand new refresh. Too many times, when dates have been given, they have been missed. Now we’re holding ourselves accountable.
With new services [like in-app billing] we”ll follow the desires of developers, not those of other app stores like Apple (NSDQ: AAPL). We know that developers have not been real happy with the scenario that they don’t have access to customers’ data. Publishers have been eagerly contacting us about this.
What will you do in your store different from others?
We don’t want you to have to be tethered to something. Since the Pre came out we have had 12 over-the-air updates. We want the same experience carrying over with in-app purchases, and automatic updates. How that will work in our store? There will be some unique ways that you will want to spend time in it. It is unlike any of the other stores you have seen.
With the other stores out there, you have to ‘walk around’ in the metaphorical sense to explore and know what you are looking for. We are aiming to present our store in a unique way. Without being too cagey we are exploring new avenues for providing a new store, a new experience for discovery, rather than search. I would say let’s check in in 30 days to see more on that.
Also I think that we have some unique features built into the SDK — for example, touch to share — these offer app developers a unique experience on the platform.
What’s your take on non-native app stores, or those run by third parties like Amazon?
I think we should follow the customer trends in those areas. But I’m not convinced those things are made to the best capability of the customer. If I buy an app in one place, can I only get updates from that store or can I get them elsewhere? Let’s see how all that plays out.
How is it going getting all the “must-have” apps into the store?
There are a lot of great apps out there that we will want on our platform. Everyone knows we will be a contender in this race, and none of them have said no. But some have said either let’s see, or let’s see how the first six months go.
It’s easy to play the numbers game, but honestly users usually have only 10-20 apps on their devices that they explore and use regularly. I’m happy if we could have 10,000-30,000 apps. Quality over quantity.
What about getting smaller publishers on the platform? Are you offering anything to them in terms of funding or other incentives?
I don’t like to pay to port. What we are doing is we are hiring developers, a small swat team, who will go out to you to help. That works as training, and it lowers your investment and increases your opportunity. That’s abetter strategy. But I’ll write you a chack if you support me? Then you would just have to keep writing checks and that’s a losing battle.
[This team really will be small. Kerris says he’s aiming for five in-house people in California, with another three in London/Europe.]