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Apple and HP have some similar products but different approaches

Apple and Hewlett-Packard are very different but have a few things in common. Both companies are not only doing very well in today’s PC market but also have played an important role in the evolution of the personal computer ecosystem — Apple more so on the PC side and HP on the printer side.

HP over the years has designed some of the best-selling and most innovative laser and ink jet printers, and has made a lot of money selling ink for those printers. Apple, as we all know, has been an innovator when it comes to its Macintosh PCs as well as the operating systems and application software that runs on those computers. But even on the PC side, HP has been innovative.

Because of the enormous success of the iPhone, people tend to associate touch in general and multitouch in particular with Apple. But it’s worth noting that HP introduced a touch-screen PC in 1983 and demonstrated its own multitouch devices before Apple introduced the iPhone. Like the iPhone and now the iPad, HP’s multitouch allowed you to use your finger to move, resize and manipulate on-screen objects.

Other similarities between the companies are that both are in the smartphone business, and HP will soon have devices that compete with Apple’s iPad. HP didn’t develop its own smartphone but recently acquired Palm not just for its phones but also for the Web OS operating system that Palm developed for its Pre and Pixi phones. HP has said it also will use the Web OS

on tablet or “slate” PCs aimed at consumers. Last week, HP announced that will also offer a Windows 7 slate PC for the business market.

But while there are similarities between the two companies, there are also some significant differences that came to mind as I listened to HP personal systems group Vice President Phil McKinney speak last week at the Always On Summit at Stanford.

Unlike Apple executives, who never talk about unannounced products and rarely even share concepts for products with the public, McKinney was happy to talk about the types of products that he thinks can make a difference. For example, during his presentation and our subsequent interview, he touted a concept product that HP has been talking about for five years but has never built — a wristwatch that provides connectivity for whatever devices you may want to use.

Although the watch he envisions would have better battery life and better reception than today’s mobile phones, the idea is similar to what some mobile phones, including the Palm Pre, Motorola Droid X and HTC Evo, now provide — a Wi-Fi hotspot to give Internet access to nearby devices. The notion is that each device we buy won’t need cellular connectivity as long as we have personal hub to get all of our devices online.

McKinney shared other ideas as well. For example, he thinks it makes sense to disengage the device from the display. He envisions a world where mobile devices don’t have their own display screens but instead wirelessly transfer still and moving images to whatever screens are nearby. As for devices, he said, “it’s more about what you carry with you in terms of storage and the apps you chose to use.”

He didn’t raise the issue of keyboards and user interfaces, but it strikes me that they, too, can be separated from devices. We’ve already seen some creative though not terribly well implemented products like the Bluetooth Laser Virtual Keyboard that projects a virtual keyboard onto a desktop. There are also roll-up keyboards but they too are very clunky. But the keyboards on most handheld devices are even harder to use, which is one reason we still need laptops and netbooks.

As far as screens are concerned, the most creative idea — and it’s an old one — is to wear eyeglasses that are actually video screens. These have been around for years and even though they seem like a good idea, there is probably a very good reason why they’ve never taken off.

I don’t think we’re anywhere near ready for mobile devices that don’t have screens or input devices, but I am intrigued by the idea. Which brings me back to HP vs. Apple. If anyone can come up with a way to make this happen, it will be one or both of these Silicon Valley companies. And if history is any indication, HP is likely to be instrumental in coming up with some of the early designs, but Apple could be the one to release a killer product that people might actually want to use.

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