Windows Trips Up H-P's Giant 'iPad' Bet

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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- There's an old vaudeville saw: For every two minutes of glamour, there's eight hours of pain and frustration. As Meg Whitman and Hewlett-Packard try to add some Apple-like glamour to their song and dance, they'll probably tell you that ratio is about right.

Pretend for a sec you're Whitman, the top star at computer giant H-P. Since PCs and software are stuck in the dumps between commodity and free service, the future is clear: Do what Apple does -- develop some star power with a stylish, integrated software and hardware experience that consumers throng to.

The HP TouchSmart 9300 PC packs serious business punch -- including an Intel Core i7 processor and full terabyte of storage -- as well as touch-based controls.

Not surprisingly, H-P investors also want a piece of the Apple limelight. Whitman was peppered by such demands from shareholders this year at the company's annual conference. Even though H-P spends a billion dollars more per year than Apple on research and development, Macs succeed and H-P products don't. What up with that?

"Steve Jobs is the business genius of our generation," Whitman told a cranky shareholder, according to Business Insider's Julie Bort, who covered the event.

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Now, there is no doubt Whitman and H-P are trying hard at Apple box office draw. Take the HP TouchSmart 9300 PC (base price: $1,499). I've been giving one a demo for about a month, as well as talking with several H-P product managers about how this PC fits into the larger strategy.

"It's all about redefining what a computer really is," says Joe Marenin, product manager for the TouchSmart.

My takeaway? Grabbing some Apple glamour really is going to take some serious blood, sweat and tears. Here's why:

The 9300 is a decent business computer, but it's not yet an Apple "experience."

Called a business-class, touch-enabled all-in-one PC, the 9300 will be recognized by Apple users immediately. It's the iPad meets the iMac -- a giant touch-controlled screen, a keyboard and all the the bits of a computer all hidden inside a single box that sits on the desk.

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By no means is the 9300 shabby. The unit features a marvelous 23-inch diagonal display, which looks great and pivots easily, so it's always effortless to view. The techno guts are stuffed into a well-designed enclosure that is, at most, about 4 inches thick. And the thing packs serious business punch: an Intel Core i7 processor, a full terabyte of storage -- that's more power and space than you will ever need. Plus seven (count 'em!) USB 2.0 ports, a DVD drive and a fantastic keyboard, among many nice features.

But the actual business user experience? That is most definitely does not pack star power.

The touch factor of this PC is limited by, guess what, Microsoft Windows 7. Yes, it's cool that I do not need to noodle with my mouse to make fixes as I write this story. With the 9300, I simply reach out, touch the Word document on the screen and delete the offending bits. But actually using these touch features with the mouse-oriented Windows 7 feels -- and I'm being kind here -- bush league.

That's a limitation, Marenin says, H-P is fully aware of.

The transition to a fully fleshed-out, deeper touch-control paradigm will begin in measured steps over the next 18 months, he said. Today's mostly Windows 7-based touch machines, like this 9300, support a technology called optical touch.

But starting this summer a more complex so-called "Projective Capacitive Touch" will emerge that supports more fingers -- up to 10, or even more for some machines. It will be built to work with touch-friendly Windows 8, due out at the same time.

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Windows 8's touch features are such a big draw for H-P that the company is betting that touch-controlled computing may become PCs for the company.

"I can see a time when eventually all PCs in the line will be touch-enabled," Marenin says. "The touch distinction will end as a marketing concept."

Touch deployments will be complex, but this migration to touch control sounds like just the star power H-P needs, save one critical detail: Unlike Apple -- which controls its own software destiny -- H-P relies on others for its code, namely Microsoft .

So how will Microsoft's evolving software fit with H-P's evolving hardware? Not easily.

Marenin confirms that each version of H-P's touch technology will have to support each type of Windows operating systems. If you're keeping score at home, that means today's touch capacitance technology will need to work for Windows 7 and 8. And so will tomorrow's optical touch technology. That ignores potential issues raised by other evolving operating systems that can also run on H-P boxes: Linux, Google Chrome and whatever other OS develops in the coming years.

All that means that H-P's quest for touch-enabled wow factor -- the much-needed Apple oomph H-P and its investors are banking on --- will take place in a terribly complex software environment.

And that will almost certainly slow and confuse deployment. Meaning Whitman, H-P and investors will pretend to be Apple for a long, long time indeed.

Yes, friends, two minutes of Apple glamour really does take eight hours of work.

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