HP plants a phablet flag in India

After long, failed smartphone history, HP launches 6-in. and 7-in. VoiceTabs; analysts consider this a test move

Hewlett-Packard launched two new Android phablets on Wednesday for sale in India next month: the HP Slate6 VoiceTab and the Slate7 Voice Tab.

While the two mobile devices may never go on sale in the U.S., they signal an important move by HP, almost a re-entry into the smartphone realm after a troubled history in that category, analysts said.

The HP VoiceTab 7.

"HP is re-entering the smartphone market in a very strategic and calculated way," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "After the Palm/WebOS debacle, they really needed to think this one through carefully. If this test works well, I would expect them to target southeast Asia or Eastern Europe, where HP has a very strong brand. China is a huge bite to take right now, but it would certainly need to be in the cards."

HP hasn't announced pricing for either of the 6-in. or 7-in. devices that it referred to as phablets, and it didn't offer many details about them. Both use a quad-core processor from an unnamed vendor, run Android 4.2 and come equipped with a 2-megapixel front and a 5-megapixel rear camera. They are both thin and designed to fit in a pocket and feature scratch-resistent carbon fiber cases, according to an HP blog.

Both models have dual SIM capability, a feature deemed important in India where customers like to switch between wireless carriers. (A separate service contract will be required.) They support 3G wireless and Wi-Fi, with 16GB of built-in storage, expandable to 32 GB with a microSD.

An HP spokeswoman said the company has nothing to announce about future markets outside of India. "HP will expand to additional mobility categories, form factors or markets where we believe we can offer differentiated value to our customers," she said via email.

Moorhead and Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said the HP brand is strong in India, and predicted the hybrid phone-tablet form factor will be forgiving on battery life. "Anyone seriously interested in client computing in the future must be in smartphones," Moorhead noted.

HP quit the smartphone market in 2011, but CEO Meg Whitman in a 2012 broadcast interview said that HP needed a smartphone to take to market because in many countries they are used as the primary computing devices.

IDC has seen fast growth in the phablet form-factor in Asian countries, including India. The category is generally regarded as consisting of large smartphones that double as tablets in the 5-to-7-in. size range. In the third quarter of 2013, phablets made up 22% of all smartphones shipped globally.

HP currently has about one-third of the PC's shipped in India, according to IDC. That puts HP ahead of Lenovo and Dell.

HP's storied smartphone history goes back more than a decade. HP in 2011 shut down its webOS division, which was based on the Palm platform that HP bought in 2010 for $1.2 billion. Before Palm, HP made phones under the iPaq brand running on Windows Mobile after HP merged with Compaq Computer in 2002.

Analysts said HP made a good choice by starting out the new Slate devices in India. "I see this as HP trying to enter a marketplace where they have the best chance of success and to see what the market wants," Gold added. "This is an experiment by HP to see if they can pick up market share."

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 email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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