Is the channel HP’s secret weapon for Touchpad?

HP TouchPadLAS VEGAS – Let’s start by setting expectations: The purpose of this post is not to answer the question set out in the headline.

Rather, it’s to pose the question – one that I found myself asking myself more frequently as my days here at HP Americas Partner Conference 2011 wound on. In many ways, I had come here expecting to be asking questions about whether HP saw its channel as a part of the mix for the soon-to-launch tablet. But those questions were quickly answered, and replaced by the question in the headline.

Here’s why.

First of all, webOS is everywhere here. It’s obvious HP is the proud parent of a platform that’s growing up to be big and strong, and it wants its partners to get excited about the platform too. Almost every executive, from CEO Léo Apotheker on down, touched on webOS during their main stage presentations here.

The event saw HP pledge to have channel SKUs of its webOS devices, as well as putting benefits around the platform into the PartnerOne program. Details are still foggy, but it quickly became apparent that if HP is playing its cards close to the vest, it’s because it doesn’t want to tip its hands too early. Not because it doesn’t know how to play its hand.

It’s an across the board talking point. HP’s Personal Systems Group (PSG) is the home of webOS, so it did most of the talking, but webOS also fit prominently into discussions from Imaging and Printing Group executives. Even my conversation here with HP Canada ESSN chief Dave Frederickson included a lot of discussion of how webOS will fit into HP’s enterprise play in the future.

In his keynote here Wednesday morning, PSG chief Todd Bradley was in full chest-thumping mode when it came to the Touchpad. He made it clear that HP was not only gunning for first-place competitor Apple and its wildly popular iPad, but for all the other hundreds of tablets in the market and soon to launch as well. His language was not that of a man whose key product has not yet launched and won’t launch for a while yet. So why so much bravado?

Could it be that HP has figured out what the majority of its tablet-selling competitors have not as of yet: That if the tablet is an increasingly important part of enterprise IT applications, perhaps it should be treated as such, and not as a retail purchase afterthought that’s then jury-rigged into applications?

There’s no doubt that tablets are growing in popularity in businesses. And yet when I talk to solution providers about the devices, they tell me they’re most often building for tablets and around tablets, seldom including the devices themselves in the scope of the solution they deliver.

It’s a mentality that was started by Apple – it certainly appears that Apple saw the iPad as a consumers-first device, and has been dragged somewhat reluctantly into working with partners to make the product enterprise-ready. And it continues as IT continues to put up with tablets in the enterprise, rather than really embracing them.

Enter the channel.

In preparing its partners early, it appears to me that HP is looking for its base of solution providers – one of the broadest in the world – to be the evangelists and engineers who make its vision of webOS permeating across the enterprise real. Here at APC, we’ve heard HP urge partners to get to know webOS, to start developing custom apps for end users, and to start including webOS-based devices in the solutions they’re crafting for customers. And in an interview with CRN’s Kevin McLaughlin, HP Americas PSG chief Stephen DeWitt tears into Apple for having a “transactional” approach to working with solution providers around the iPad.

Will partners carry the Touchpad? For the device to have a chance for success, it will have to come in right around the price point of the iPad. That likely means partner margins will not be enough alone to get VARs jazzed about the product. But the ability to add incremental value by including tablets in an appropriate solution, and the ability to identify additional service opportunities around the devices far outweighs the handful of points partners are likely to see from the hardware sales.

And for partners who aren’t interested in the hardware game, there are plenty of services-centric opportunities, most notably application development (custom and otherwise) for which HP already seems to be grooming the channel.

HP faces challenges in launching the Touchpad. For one, it’s a year and a half late to the market. While it’s talking about dominating the tablet market, Apple has been doing so with millions of shipments. And being late for the game is even more damaging in the world of consumerized IT. Sure, the Touchpad may get the official blessing of the IT department over the iPad. But will that matter when they’re presented to an army of users who own and love iPads and have developed workflows with the device and the applications that run on it?

“iPad didn’t sell because corporations love it, they sold because the end users love it,” IT Weapons’ Ted Garner recently observed. “That’s why iPad is winning, and that’s why it’s going to be an uphill battle. They’re not going to have that consumer tidal wave behind it.”

To break through that consumer momentum, HP has to have the right product, and some differentiation. But it looks like the vendor is also recognizing that it needs to have its channel partners, the much-vaunted trusted business advisors to their clients, on board and invested as well.

Off the top I said I wasn’t going to answer the question I posed in the headline of this piece. But as I look at the evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, I think I’m changing my mind on that. Is the channel HP’s secret weapon for Touchpad? I offer these two observations:

  1. It appears so; and
  2. If the product is to achieve the lofty goals HP execs seem to have for it, it will have to be.

What do you think? Are you interested in selling tablets, or are you happy to let them find their way into the enterprise through end users via Best Buy and integrate them into solutions after the fact? Will tablets live up to the hype in the long run? Is there room for solution providers to add enough value to make tablets interesting in the channel? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.