SAN FRANCISCO — Hewlett-Packard on Wednesday outlined a billion-dollar bet to reshape its huge personal-computer and mobile-device business to be more like Apple, using an in-house operating system rather than Microsoft Windows.
It’s a blow for Microsoft to have its largest customer — and the world’s largest PC maker — reject Windows for its new push into the fast-growing mobile-device business.
But shoppers may benefit from the increased competition and new options coming later this year.
HP plans to release two phones this spring and a tablet computer in the summer, all based on the latest version of the WebOS software the company acquired when it bought Palm last April for $1.2 billion.
HP’s tablet — the TouchPad — joins a flood of tablet computers to be released this year, including new versions of Apple’s iPad, devices running Google’s Android software and Windows-based tablets from Dell and other major PC makers.
Research firms forecast more than 50 million tablet computing devices will be sold this year. Gartner expects 64.8 million will be sold globally, rising to 154 million in 2013.
“These things are proof that the future is really wide open when it comes to growth and opportunities in the mobile space,” Qualcomm Chief Executive Paul Jacobs said during the HP event.
The TouchPad was the highlight of a splashy media event in a waterfront pavilion Wednesday morning.
Yet HP made clear it was launching more than a few devices. It was presenting a new platform it expects to rival Windows, Android and Apple’s iOS software used in the iPhone and iPad.
The company aims to build the largest community of connected devices in the world, creating a big draw for software developers, according to Steven McArthur, senior vice president for applications and services.
“Virtually no other company could credibly put forward such a goal,” said McArthur, a former president of Expedia.
HP emphasized that the WebOS platform can be pushed through its vast network of customers, partner companies and retail outlets. The Palo Alto, Calif., company has more than a billion customers and distributes its products through 88,000 stores around the world.
It’s going to count on wireless phone companies to help move the TouchPad, though. Verizon and others will start selling the device in summer for a price somewhere below $800.
The 1.6-pound TouchPad has a 9.6-inch diagonal display with 1,024 by 728 resolution and a front-facing camera for videoconferencing. It’s powered by Qualcomm’s newest dual-core, 1.2 gigahertz Snapdragon processor and will come with 16 or 32 gigabytes of storage.
It will be available first with Wi-Fi and later with 3G wireless service through multiple carriers.
The new phones include the tiny Veer, about the size of a credit card with a 2.6-inch screen. It has 8 gigabytes of storage, a slide-out keyboard, HSPA+ wireless and an 800 megahertz Snapdragon processor. It will go on sale in “early spring.”
“Never before has a smartphone done so much and felt so little,” said Jon Rubinstein, the former CEO of Palm and now an HP senior vice president.
Rubinstein also showed the Pre3, a larger phone with a 3.6-inch diagonal screen, slide-out keyboard and HSPA+ and EVDO rev. It runs on a 1.4 gigahertz Snapdragon processor and will be available this summer.
Rubinstein said that with WebOS, the company aims to transform how people think, feel and connect to different devices and services. Devices running the software stay synchronized with online services and can integrate multiple providers of e-mail and online calendars, for instance.
To use all the features, though, users will need both a TouchPad and a WebOS phone.
For instance, the demonstrations Wednesday showed how messages coming into a Pre phone can be answered on a tablet. Web pages being browsed on the tablet — such as a restaurant’s website — can be shifted to a Pre phone by tapping the phone against the tablet.
Todd Bradley, HP’s executive vice president for personal systems, said the company is bringing memorable new experiences comparable to the first time he heard the whisper of an electric car.
“We should all witness these firsts as often as we can in our lives. If you think about it, creating those experiences for a living is what the technology industry is all about.”
The phones and tablet had been expected, but Bradley added something extra when he announced the company also plans to extend WebOS to desktop and laptop PCs.
Executives provided no details of when WebOS PCs will arrive and said the company will continue to produce Windows-based PCs also.
Microsoft declined to make executives available to discuss HP’s move but a spokesman provided a statement: “HP is a valued Microsoft partner, and we continue to work closely with them on many new products that bring great experiences to our mutual customers.”
In January, Microsoft disclosed the next version of Windows will run on the tiny, integrated hardware platforms used in smartphones and the latest tablet computers, including the Qualcomm hardware HP is using for its WebOS devices.
But the new version of Windows may not arrive until late this year or in 2012.
HP looked into different operating systems when it began developing slate-type tablet computers five years ago, according to Chief Technology Officer Phil McKinney.
It decided the best approach was an operating system designed from the ground up for mobile devices and one that could be tailored for tablets.
“There are operating systems appropriate for the job,” McKinney said.
That approach is similar to that of Apple, which develops its own hardware and software, and has led the emergence of mobile computing devices since its iPhone was first released in 2007.
HP also may have decided it was simply cheaper to develop its own operating system and developer platform, instead of paying to license the multipurpose Windows.
It’s a challenge to lure developers to a new platform, especially when they’re already stretched developing applications for multiple platforms and devices, but HP has already landed a few big ones.
Time Inc. showed TouchPad versions of “Sports Illustrated” and “People” magazines that are expected to be ready — along with Fortune magazine — when the device launches.
HP also worked with Amazon.com on a TouchPad version of Kindle that supports the Kindle’s new “collections” feature for managing libraries of Kindle books.
(This is an expanded version of my blogging live from HP’s event)