Hands on with the HP TouchPad

I spent half an hour in a meeting, using HP's new TouchPad tablet, before someone realized I wasn't using an iPad. That says a lot about this product--due to be released Friday--and not just in superficial ways.

Physically, yes, the TouchPad is the most iPad-like tablet I've seen. Like the iPad, it's a $499 10-inch tablet with a 4:3 aspect ratio. There's even a single hardware button on the front (it's a rounded rectangle, not a circle), a front-facing camera, and a sleep/wake button at the top. It's not an , though: the TouchPad is thicker, and heavier. But at a glance most people wouldn't be able to tell them apart. Where the iPad has a metal back, the TouchPad is curved black plastic. There's a mini-USB port instead of a dock connector. There are stereo speakers instead of a single mono speaker, and there's no rear-facing camera.

The TouchPad's physical appearance isn't the only evidence that HP is playing a different game from most tablet competitors. a year ago gave the company complete control over a mobile platform. Like Apple, HP controls the hardware design, the software design, and the app-development platform. While most other competitors craft hardware (and sometimes software add-ons) to house Google's Android operating system, HP has the same level of control over its product as Apple and RIM.

The mere mention of those two companies shows you the different directions in which this sort of story can head. There's no telling where HP's going, but I have to say that I'm optimistic. The TouchPad is a first-generation device that's clearly behind the iPad in a number of areas, but it's running a thoughtfully designed operating system (webOS) that has a lot of potential, both on smartphones and tablets. I don't know if the TouchPad will take the world by storm--after all, no other non-Apple tablet has to this point. But I'm not sure that the TouchPad needs to do all that. If it can just give HP and webOS some momentum, it has the potential to eventually be the iPad's most serious rival to date.