In crowded tablet market, brand identity will matter

WebOS will test impact of HP's powerful brand

With a bevy of new tablet computers coming to market, vendors' brands will take on more significance than ever.

Brand, which encompasses far more than the "brand name" of a company or product, has become an all-encompassing, almost-indefinable essence of a company. It explains, for example, why many analysts believe Apple will introduce an exciting, successful second-generation iPad later this year. It will have the Apple brand, therefore it will shine, they reason.

The meaning of the word brand has even begun to stretch beyond a company's trademark or its reputation. It now includes elements such as a manufacturer's popularity, marketing savvy and ability to design and build quality products. Brand has come to encompass the maker's ability to distribute its products widely and to support them and its customers.

For example, in contrast to the way they are anticipating success for Apple's iPad, some analysts are already expressing concerns about the way Research In Motion's brand -- specifically, RIM's strong reputation among business users -- will affect sales of its forthcoming PlayBook tablet in the consumer market.

In the same vein, analysts wonder how well Hewlett-Packard, a powerhouse in the server and printer markets with a strong brand in those areas, will do when it introduces WebOS-based products, including a tablet that many expect to be the subject of a Feb. 9 announcement in San Francisco.

Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC, noted that whereas HP has a respected brand, the WebOS operating system doesn't. WebOS, which HP acquired in its purchase of Palm last year, has powered smartphones such as the Palm Pre and Pixi.

"Even though it's HP, popularity with a tablet or other product is determined by your predecessors, and WebOS didn't really catch on," Llamas said in an interview. "By comparison, iPad is a derivative of iPhone, and now we have PlayBook coming from BlackBerry. But WebOS? Not so much. WebOS traces back to the Pre and Pixi, and the fact was that not a lot of people picked up those phones."

HP's strong reputation for servers and printers won't matter when it comes to WebOS, Llamas said. "If you take a look at what HP wants to do with WebOS, HP is big on [saying it will have] a lot of money for marketing," he said. "Well congrats, but where's the distribution [operation] and where's your customers?"

Llamas said he examined many tablets introduced at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week but didn't find any clear winners. "A lot of companies said they had tablets, but it was usually just another company waving a banner," he said. "Until a strong brand comes out with a tablet that's well differentiated, there aren't a lot of real standouts."

Having a strong brand to back a new tablet will matter because the field of tablets is so large and the category is relatively new, meaning the winners will be those that first get the attention of buyers, Llamas said.

"A strong brand has helped Apple over the years, even through Antennagate with iPhone 4, but brand only works so far," Llamas said. "Brand is a big piece [of ultimate success], but not the only piece. In an early market like tablets, having a strong brand helps."

With the crowded tablet market, Llamas and other analysts said RIM and HP will need to think of ways to use their brands to attract customers to test and then buy unproven tablets. RIM has strong partnerships with hundreds of wireless carriers globally, which will help the PlayBook, Llamas said.

"People are drawn to a brand, but ultimately influenced by factors such as cost and how well a certain device can execute," Llamas said. "They want to know about the UI and other factors, and what's the bang for the buck, obviously."

Todd Bradley, executive vice president of HP's personal systems group, defended WebOS in a recent CNBC interview at CES.

Bradley called WebOS, now in Version 2.0, the first "truly Web-based OS... that is very feature-rich." He also called it the "only true multitasking OS," because it allows a user to open 20 different apps at once. He said WebOS will find its way into smartphones, tablets, PCs and other large-screen devices, with an introduction at HP's Feb. 9 event.

"We see an enormous opportunity for customers to get the best Web experience," Bradley added.

HP's Feb. 9 event in San Francisco will follow a Sprint Nextel announcement in New York on Feb. 7, and some analysts said the two could be related. Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates, noted that Sprint sold the first Treo handheld from Palm and had solid success with it, meaning HP and Sprint have something in common.

But because of the two-day difference in the scheduling of the Sprint and HP events, Gold speculated that Sprint's announcement might not have anything to do with an HP tablet. It could be about the future of WiMax and LTE, he said, or it could feature more details about the RIM PlayBook, which Sprint has already said that it will run over WiMax.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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