Published: January 16th, 2014

I’m not sure if Hewlett-Packard Co. is trying to fool us by calling its new smartphones “voice tablets.” It does though, at least, add a measure of humour to their questionable decision to dip their toes back into the smartphone market.

HP has been burned in this market, and embarrassingly so. An early entrant in the pre-consumerization/BYOD days with its iPaq line of Windows-based PDAs, HP tried to catch up with the new smartphone era in 2010 with the $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm under former CEO Mark Hurd, primarily for WebOS. After a failed tablet launch, his successor, Leo Apotheker, shuttered the business and began an expensive pivot to enterprise software, nearly destroying HP’s PC business in the process. Current CEO Meg Whitman sold WebOS to LG Electronics in 2013 for a song, closing the book.

While HP never swore off smartphones – in my discussions with company executives over the years they never ruled it out – it was obvious they weren’t in any hurry to jump back into the cauldron. They seemed satisfied with a gradual re-entry into the tablet market, focused at first primarily on enterprise devices running Windows. More consumer and Android models followed.

Perhaps, then, a smartphone seemed like the next step, leading to Wednesday’s announcement of the 6” Slate6 VoiceTab and 7” HP Slate7 VoiceTab. Both fall squarely in the phablet space, and by using Slate – HP’s tablet brand – it’s cleary trying to signal these devices are more tablet than phone. It’s about consolidation, says HP – customers want to combine their phones and tablets, creating a “voice tablet” market.

Voice tablet market is a new one for me, but alright. But if it walks like a duck, it’s still a smartphone.

The devices themselves will have some power, with a quad core processor, and will run Google’s Android OS. HP is pitching them as multitasking tools with entertainment and productivity tools and, of yeah, voice connectivity too. They will launch in India in February – no word on availability elsewhere. There are reports though that HP was showing the devices off to retailers at the recent Consumer Electronics Showcase.

So it seems like we’ll see these in stores soon enough, alongside iPhones and about 1,000 other Android devices. And if that’s so, for the first time in her tenure as CEO I have to seriously question Whitman’s direction.

About the only play I could see making sense for HP is one focused strictly on the enterprise, like BlackBerry is supposedly doing. HP could leverage its position as supplier of end-to-end IT solutions from data centre to endpoint to pitch a smartphone as a secure part of an HP-backed enterprise infrastructure to those businesses that, for security or other issues, want to issues employees devices instead of embracing BYOD.

However, as a consumer play, HP has little to differentiate itself here – it’s just yet another Android handset in a market teeming with them, trying to eek out some marketshare and win over carriers with little margin payback.

Really, what’s the point?