Just under a year ago, HP announced the purchase of Palm for over $1 billion. In initially announcing the purchase, HP made it clear that what they were really acquiring was the WebOS platform.

As HP put it, the acquisition would enable them “to participate more aggressively in the fast-growing, highly profitable smartphone and connected mobile device markets.”

HP is now finally making some big moves in the hopes that they were right and that it was a billion dollars well spent. Last week in San Francisco, HP announced a whole new cadre of hardware around the webOS 2.0 platform – the Pre 3 and Veer smartphones as well as the TouchPad tablet.

Preliminary reviews are pretty mixed and information is somewhat limited at this point. The Veer is basically a small phone (with a 2.6 inch screen) aimed at the general consumer market, the Pre3 a bulkier phone with a larger display aimed at the business community, and the TouchPad is basically designed for anyone who is thinking about buying an iPad.

Frankly, there’s not much about the hardware on these devices that really make them stand out in terms of usability in medicine – however, there are a few notable exceptions.

The real underlying question about these devices is the following: Does WebOS is bring anything new to the table that will entice the healthcare industry.

So first, lets start briefly with the hardware. These devices have a few advantages, such as the TouchPad’s 1.2GHz dual-core processor which may confer a speed advantage of the iPad and the Xoom. However, there are several notable exceptions. First, the persistence of the slide-out keyboard in the smartphones is, in my opinion, an unnecessary weight. If HP hopes to win over current iPhone/Android users, at the very least one of these devices should have been pure touchscreen. Secondly, the TouchPad (as well as the smartphones) lack front and back facing cameras. As this is becoming an increasingly standard feature on mobile devices, its absence is a notable one here. Overall, the hardware doesn’t seem to stack up to the current generation of tablets i.e. not much to attract medical professionals.

WebOS for medical professions:

As for the WebOS software, there are definitely more positives. From the days when Epocrates first came out for Palm devices, people have like it. HP liked it enough to spend a billion dollars on it. As a proprietary system, it may also afford some more options in terms of data security and be easier to develop for than say Android, though I suspect this advantage will be minimal if any.

What is more interesting here is HP’s push to develop these devices as different windows onto a single screen. HP will be giving users a “large” amount of cloud storage space and encouraging apps to function on the cloud as well. They have even gone so far as to develop a functionality where if, say, I were working on a report on my TouchPad and wanted to continue it on my Veer, I simply have to bump the two together to transfer the work over. To be clear, its not an actual transfer of data, which is stored on the cloud, but rather a transfer of the open viewer to a different device. If anything is clear from the initial press, HP is clearly embracing the concept of cloud computing.

By far and away the greatest challenge here will be the lack of apps for the WebOS system. This is obviously something that HP recognizes as they were quick to announce that many companies, such as Amazon, will be launching apps for the WebOS platform. However, those announced thus far are already big market players with money to spend for marginal revenue.  Will smaller medical developers – already stretched in supporting iOS, Android, and WP7 – add WebOS to their repertoire?

One advantage WebOS has is that it will not share Android’s problem with fragmentation. However, I’m skeptical that the WebOS marketshare – currently as low as 2% by some estimates – will catch up in time to present a sufficient incentive for developers. Perhaps one hope for HP is that they will somehow be able to use their much larger market share in the PC industry to encourage development of apps for their mobile devices, with the obvious challenge being that desktops are Windows based.

I suspect that the lack of a rich developer and app environment will likely turn out to be the fatal weakness when it comes to utility for medical professionals. What made iOS and is making Android devices so powerful is not just the hardware, but more importantly the software – the imaginative apps and peripherals that people are building for these devices.

Case in point, Android.  The operating system already outnumbers iPhones, but is still struggling to catch up to Apple in regards to quality of medical apps.  If a giant in the game with already a huge market share is still struggling, then the outlook for WebOS in regards to medical apps looks grim.