A Tale Of Two HPs? Total Control Of WebOS And Licensing Both On The Table

HP (NYSE: HPQ) is presenting two very different mobile strategies to the world leading up to the launch of its first WebOS tablet, and it’s getting a little hard to figure out where the company really wants to go with its mobile software. Is HP trying to out-Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) Apple with an integrated design strategy, or does it want to out-Android Android by competing for licensing deals with promises of customization?

Earlier this week Phil McKinney, HP’s CTO for its personal systems group, and Richard Kerris, vice president of worldwide developer relations, gave an interview to Fast Company previewing Friday’s TouchPad launch praising HP’s decision to develop the hardware and software for the TouchPad in unison, keeping complete control over the process. “Everyone is figuring out that if you want to survive, you really want to control the experience end to end,” McKinney said in the interview. “The ability to control both the hardware platform and OS is absolutely critical.”

However, it sounds like HP is prepared to give up control of that experience in order to secure potential licensing deals. We already knew that HP was thinking about such a tactic, but CEO Leo Apotheker told Bloomberg Wednesday that talks were underway with several different companies about the prospect of licensing WebOS. Apotheker wouldn’t name names, but Bloomberg reported that Samsung was in the mix, and that the handset maker was specifically lured by the prospect of being able to customize WebOS to a greater degree than Google (NSDQ: GOOG) might allow Android to be tweaked after running into fragmentation problems.

If HP were to license WebOS to another company that could put its own stamp on the software, while continuing to sell the TouchPad, Veer, and Pre 3, then it would be doing the opposite of what McKinney and Kerris articulated just this week. In the interview they were talking about why HP bought Palm instead of going down the Android road: they wanted to have control over the software running on their devices. But if they license that software to third parties with promises of customization, they’ll have to give up some of that control in much the same way that Google is forced to tolerate bloated user-interface skins over Android and carrier interference with the distribution of updates.

HP-branded WebOS computers would then be competing against Samsung or other companies using similar but slightly different software, which would likely create the same fragmentation problems the HP executives bemoaned about Android and sow confusion among consumers if both companies were to label their devices as WebOS compatible. It’s like the Nexus One all over again: why would HP think that competing against its partners would be well-received?

HP may be trying to chart a third course between Apple and Google, with more control over the software than Google while still going for volume by farming it out, but Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) is already trying to do that with Nokia, and Microsoft doesn’t (yet) have plans to sell its own hardware in competition with Nokia (NYSE: NOK). HP’s Jon Rubinstein told This Is My Next that it would only consider licensing to partners that put WebOS at the forefront of their development strategy and promised to help improve the software overall.

This strategy has the potential to give the term “frenemies” a whole new meaning.