Hewlett Packard definitely plans to be in the tablet business, but questions remain about whether it will create different hardware for each of three expected tablet operating systems - Google Android, Windows 7 and WebOS.
HP on Thursday officially said in a statement that it's "very excited about the slate [tablet] category" and "plans to use the WebOS from its Palm acquisition as well as Windows 7 from Microsoft for this category."
There was no mention, however, of an HP slate running Android, as widely reported, although a spokesman indicated more information would be avilable "at the appropriate time."
HP did not discuss timing in its statement.
The fact that HP didn't mention Android is interesting, given the number of reports - especially on Engadget - saying Federal Communications Commission documents show that HP will produce an Android-based Zeen tablet that's geared toward e-reading.
Zeen is a play on the last syllable of the word "magazine." Reportedly, the device would connect directly to an HP printer, making it a portable way to quickly produce any magazine on printer paper from the Web.
Engadget has also reported that the Windows 7 tablet will appear in the fall, with the WebOS tablet expected in the first quarter of 2011 . Those dates are not official.
Assuming all three OSes are used by HP, it isn't clear how they will be branded, or even whether they will have three different hardware builds. "I'm skeptical HP will do all three OSes as different products," said Carl Howe, an analyst at Yankee Group. He said it is more likely HP will manufacture a common tablet hardware platform tailored for different operating systems and the apps used by each.
Of those three, however, Howe said the Android version would be the winner because of the ability to adapt apps already on the Android Market built for smartphones. He said Windows 7 is "hamstrung" with a non-tablet app legacy and that the WebOS developer community is small.
Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said HP has been showing analysts a version of the Windows 7 tablet, but it has been criticized for sluggish performance.
Gold urged HP to put its efforts, instead, into a WebOS or Android tablet. There will be many Android-based tablets from other manufacturers released before the end of the year, he added.
If HP builds an Android tablet, Gold said it might be branded under the Compaq name that HP controls, and marketed for use by the consumer and education markets.
See also: HP eStation Zeen to rival Apple's iPad