Where is the Next Great Smartphone from Palm and HP?

It’s been about three months since HP (s hpq) finalized its $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm, and there’s obviously some digesting and transitioning going on.

But the growing question is: When are we going to see some new webOS handset hardware from HP and Palm?

HP executives originally talked about doubling down on webOS and pushing hard on a variety of devices that can run the operating system. We then heard some waffling back and forth from ousted HP CEO Mark Hurd on the company’s commitment to webOS smartphones. Most recently, Rahul Sood, CTO of HP’s gaming business pleaded for patience in a blog post, saying new webOS devices with new form factors are on the way “over the next 12 months.”

But the fact is, we haven’t seen any new hardware since the beginning of the year; we’re now closing in on the holidays with nothing in sight; and the market is racing ahead with a slew of competing devices. Surely Palm had something in the works before the merger, no? What’s taking so long?

The most concrete statement recently on hardware from HP has been about a webOS tablet coming out in early 2011 and webOS working its way into printers. However, aside from Sood’s remarks, there’s little insight into how seriously HP plans to take its webOS smartphone business.

HP runs the risk of making webOS irrelevant if it doesn’t continue to build new smartphone hardware and fast. To compete in the smartphone market, you need to build a developer community and an app market around your platform, and that needs to start with smartphones. Without that, it’s going to be hard to build success for any other webOS device, be it a slate, printer or something else.

Palm, if you recall, released the Pre in June of last year to good reviews but modest sales. It followed up with the simpler Pixi in November. A Pre Plus and the Pixi Plus, two updates with some better internal specs, rolled out in January. For the most part, that’s been it, and to be honest, the Plus versions were upgrades, not noticeably new hardware. It’s now been about 16 months since the first launch of the flagship Palm Pre.

This might have worked in the early days of smartphones, but this is a hyper-competitive market where Apple (s aapl), RIM (s rimm) and Google (s goog) are jockeying for position armed with fresh devices, including the iPhone 4 and the BlackBerry Torch. Google’s Android in particular is being packed into one superphone after another at an incredible pace. Samsung is in the process of releasing four Android handsets on all four major carriers. HTC and Motorola (s mot) have been churning out high-end Android devices almost monthly. This isn’t to mention Microsoft’s coming push with Windows Phone 7.

This market is moving so fast that webOS can’t rely on a handful of aging smartphones; it needs to shine on new devices. Yes, there’s a webOS 2.0 update coming soon, but developers are already cooling to the charms of webOS, despite its great features. Appcelerator’s June developer survey has found that interest in webOS (13 percent) still trails (PDF) far behind Apple (90 percent) and Android (81 percent) and every other platform, including Windows Phone 7 and Symbian.

If you can’t get people to buy the handsets, no one’s going to write for the platform. Right now, Palm’s market share is just under 5 percent, according to comScore (s SCOR) It’s a numbers game, and Palm/HP doesn’t seem to be in it.

Now, HP and Palm could still roll out something really visionary for next year. I’m not saying the handset business is doomed. And to be honest, between the CEO turmoil and the integration work, there’s a lot on HP’s plate. It hasn’t helped that there’s been an exodus of key executives, including Peter Skilling, the designer of the Palm Pre.

But they still have some good executive talent including Palm’s CEO Jon Rubinstein. HP’s head of the Personal Systems Group Todd Bradley was also the former CEO of Palm and certainly knows his way around handsets. Palm should be able to put out something substantial in a timely manner.

Palm, if you recall, was a leader in the smart phone space before the iPhone came along. But lackluster and slow updates, both hardware and software-wise, left the company trailing the market even before the iPhone launched. The hope was that webOS represented a new turning point for Palm. But if it doesn’t ramp up quickly, Palm, even with the resources of HP, could continue the same slide it has been on for half a decade.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user mbiebusch