HP TouchPad goes on sale in crowded market

HP's TouchPad tablet may stand out simply by not being an iPad lookalike

Hewlett-Packard's TouchPad tablet went on sale in U.S. stores Friday. It attracted less fanfare than the launch of Apple's iPad but has drawn some interest from those seeking an alternative to this year's raft of mostly undifferentiated Android-based products.

A salesman at the Best Buy retail store in New York's Union Square, which is open 24 hours, said the TouchPad attracted a small line when it went on sale there at midnight, and that 20 of the devices had been sold by 8 a.m. A salesman at Staples in New York's Flatiron district said the device won't go on sale there until Saturday.

The TouchPad enters a market dominated by Apple's iPad, and which also includes Research In Motion's Playbook and a panoply of Android tablets from numerous vendors. The iPad accounted for 74 percent of the 6 million tablets that were sold in the first quarter, Canalys Research said in a study last month. Most of the rest were devices based on Google's Android OS, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab.

The TouchPad could fill a gap left open by all those Android-based tablets, which share similar features and have for the most part been met cooly by customers, said Sarah Rotman Epps, a senior analyst at Forrester Research.

"Android tablets are not selling to the extent OEMs expected. WebOS may be a reasonable alternative," Epps said.

The TouchPad has a 9.7-inch screen, a dual-core 1.2GHz processor and Wi-Fi for connectivity, and is priced at US$499 for a 16GB model and $599 for a 32GB model. It uses version 3.0 of HP's webOS, which it obtained when it bought Palm last year. TouchPad's with cellular connectivity are due at a later date.

HP has highlighted several features that it hopes will set the TouchPad apart from rivals, including wireless charging, touch-based document sharing, and tight integration of Twitter and Facebook capabilities. It also supports Adobe Flash, unlike the iPad but the same as most Android tablets.

TouchPad sales won't match those of the iPad 2 and it's hard to say how many buyers will be drawn to this first incarnation of the device, Epps said. In a survey of people considering a tablet purchase conducted by Forrester Research in May and June, 7 percent were considering a TouchPad, compared to more than 50 percent for the iPad 2. Just under 30 percent said they were undecided.

In some respects, such as weight, the TouchPad is more comparable to the original iPad than the iPad 2, which won't help with adoption, Epps said. But this first release gives HP an opportunity to gauge market response and hone its device.

It also expands the ecosystem for webOS, which is already in some smartphones and will go into printers and PCs in the future. That's been a big part of HP's selling point: It promises that webOS devices will be tightly integrated to enable easy sharing of documents, contacts and other data.

Several TouchPad buyers interviewed Friday were either gadget enthusiasts or developers, and already owned iPad or Android devices. They were curious to see how webOS would perform, and some were looking for an alternative to the status quo.

Bryan Liles, a developer based in Baltimore, said he is not a fan of HP products in general but bought a TouchPad because he has always been interested in webOS. Despite the challenges, it isn't too late for HP to make its mark on the tablet market, he said.

"Every new tablet that's released is automatically compared to the iPad," Liles said. "There can't be a better iPad. That doesn't mean that Android or HP can't carve out a space where they actually deliver better products."

He already has a few Android devices in addition to an original iPad. He expects to use the TouchPad for application development, browsing the Web and as an entertainment device for his kids.

Other buyers were happy owners of Palm devices such as the Pre and Pixi smartphones, and see the TouchPad as a companion device. Brent Woodruff, a computer engineer in Tallahassee, Florida, is happy to see an alternative to all the Android-based products.

"Happy to say we are Android free. Avoid the 'droid," Woodruff said.

He hopes the TouchPad will become his primary portable computer. The combination of the webOS on a bigger screen and powerful hardware makes it an attractive device, he said. He hopes there will be a series of WebOS devices that can be linked easily to share music, video and other files.

"I know they are planning to put webOS on more devices, like printers. This makes me feel as though the webOS-based products I've already purchased will become more and more useful and connected," Woodruff said.

The e-mail on the TouchPad and the ability to change the size of the on-screen keyboard are great features, said Philip Bernstein, a developer in Port Washington, New York.

Bernstein owns four Pre's, a Pixi, an iPad and an iPhone, and expects to use his TouchPad for business. His first impression of the device was very favorable, he said, but he would like it to eventually get a better browser.

Web browsing was also a concern for New York resident Jerry Kallarakkal, who did not buy a TouchPad Friday. He had concerns on the device's weight, saying it was difficult to hold the tablet comfortably in one hand.

"Weight has never been an issue for me with the iPad," he said.

Kallarakkal could imagine others being attracted to the TouchPad, but for him the price was too high. He might buy one at half the price, he said.

"If you're spending $500, why don't you just get the iPad?" Kallarakkal said.

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