When you think of innovation in personal computers, it’s usually Apple that comes to mind. But you might be surprised to learn that one of the most innovative computers in recent years has come from Hewlett-Packard’s printer division in San Diego. In fact, Apple’s innovations can’t compare, as the company is mostly focusing on increasing display resolution, using faster processors and making thinner housings.
HP’s new Sprout computer, announced earlier this month and now available from HP and retailers, is an imaginative new desktop computer that integrates elements of a tablet, display, camera and scanner into a single attractive product.
It’s able to do everything we now use a computer for, but adds so many new capabilities that it establishes a class of its own. I expect it to mark an important milestone in the evolution of computers. Before Sprout, there was little reason for people to upgrade their computers other than for faster processors and bigger screens.
While the word “breakthrough” is overused, it clearly describes the Sprout. And surprisingly, when you start using it, much of what you do is natural and intuitive, particularly for those used to using tablets.
Sprout looks like a conventional all-in-one computer, but has a pedestal rising up from behind that extends over the front of the monitor, and a large, thin, white pad that sits in front, much like a placemat.
The 20-inch touch-sensitive pad displays a projected image from the projector at the top of the pedestal. The pad becomes a second display, in addition to the 23-inch LCD monitor.
In typical use, the monitor displays the Windows 8.1 desktop and the pad displays Sprout-specific applications. You can also display other apps, documents and files on the pad by flicking them downward from the monitor.
In my testing, I opened a browser on the pad and went to the New York Times website to read news stories, much like a newspaper on my desk. I could use the pad to zoom in and scroll the image. Bringing the image closer and being able to enlarge it also makes it a great solution for those with vision issues.
The pad can also be used for game playing. In one app developed by DreamWorks, I was able to move images on the pad to create my own movie on the monitor. In another, I “played” a projected musical keyboard on the pad, while the monitor displayed and played back the music I was composing. The pad can best be thought of as a 20-inch touch tablet in its functioning. The Sprout can digitize both two- and three-dimensional objects. Simply place them on the pad and a high-resolution camera captures the images.
One example I saw was the ability to take a three-dimensional object and create a 3-D scan of it in the computer. Once in the computer, I could rotate and tilt the image and send it to others. A future application would be to use the computer to scan an object that could then be sent or printed out on a 3-D printer, another area where HP is active.
A business application I tried was collaboration using HP‘s MyRoom collaboration software. I was able to mark up and sketch ideas on one Sprout using a stylus and the pad, and it was instantly transmitted to another, where a second person could do the same in real time. It’s all done over the Internet and does not require a phone line.
Sprout sells for $1,899 including the 23-inch display, a reasonable price for its capabilities.
Like most products, there’s the product and the story behind the product. Brad Short, an HP engineer, invented the concept in 2009 and showed it at an HP innovation fair. It attracted enough positive attention to become a small project for investigation by a team of five led by Brad. It was code-named Houdini. It was much like Sprout, but without the second screen.
The results were positive enough to turn into a full project staffed with a full cross-disciplinary team (engineering, marketing, design) that grew to 60, led by Louis Kim, a product management VP in the printer division, and with experience in PCs, phones and software at HP in Houston, Barcelona and eventually San Diego.
I was brought in by Kim in early 2011 to work with the team during the product’s early stages. My role was to help find ways to accelerate the development and leverage outside resources.
Small risky projects are always a challenge in large corporations, where the norm is to be risk averse. As a result, Kim secured a dedicated location where his team could work apart from the main organization in a somewhat stealth mode.
But while physically isolated, they were caught up in a reorganization, as HP struggled to improve its financial performance through downsizing and reorganization.
In March 2012, the printer and PC organizations merged, Houdini was cancelled and the team was disbanded. But a small core team remained, including Short and Kim, committed to find a way to keep Houdini alive, now renamed Merlin.
With support from a consumer-marketing expert and a design manager, they pitched Merlin throughout HP in Cupertino; Palo Alto; Fort Collins, Colo.; Houston and New York as well as external customers, and technology partners, including Intel. Kim estimated they met more than 160 people. During these pitches, Short continued to evolve the product concept.
All this effort finally paid off when Ron Coughlin, SVP of consumer computing, decided to fund Merlin. In January 2013 it was demo’d to Meg Whitman, HP’s CEO, and received her enthusiastic support. The small core team pitching Merlin grew into a full program team once more, expanding to Palo Alto and Asia. Dion Weisler, HP’s EVP of PCs and printers and the future CEO of the split off HP Inc., has continued funding the program to its recent launch.
As far as it has come, there’s still much left to insure its success. It needs support from developers and software companies to create new applications, much as Apple needed support to make the iPad a success. And it needs continued support from HP and its partners. But whatever happens, this is a product that has the potential to change what we now know as a desktop computer.
Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.