Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) just stole a fortune from Hewlett-Packard (Nasdaq: HPQ).

Not directly, of course; HP's bank vaults are safe from Google's prying hands. But hiring perhaps the best thing Palm (Nasdaq: PALM) had going for it on the eve of HP buying the handset maker, well, it's almost as brutal. I thought HP was getting a great deal, but now I'm not so sure.

The superstar former Palm employee I'm talking about is user interface guru Matias Duarte. After being architect of the Danger Hiptop, better known as the T-Mobile Sidekick, he helmed the WebOS user interface for Palm. The user experience was arguably the best reason to love your Palm Pre, and T-Mobile is still selling Sidekicks today. As TechCrunch writer Greg Kumparak puts it, "Wherever this guy goes, awesome user interfaces follow."

Pair that golden boy up with perhaps the biggest weakness of Google's Android phone software, and you have a match made in heaven. Motorola (NYSE: MOT), HTC, and Samsung all feel the need to overlay the bland and sometimes confusing Android experience with their own user interface solutions, leading to differentiation between the brands -- and confusion for the end user. What if the stock Android interface could stand up to the best parts of a Sidekick or Palm Pre, and perhaps even the almighty Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) iPhone?

This is great news for Google, but a disaster for Palm and HP.

And that's not all. Wherever Duarte goes, many of his underlings and confreres tend to follow. This raises further questions.

  • WebOS already has an admirable user interface for cell phones. Will that translate onto tablet computers and printers, and how much work will that take?
  • Do HP and Palm have anybody else at hand who could complete the designs that Duarte created?
  • Will that special someone stay on throughout the transition or follow Duarte's lead?

These are not trivial considerations in the context of a $1.2 billion acquisition that placed a heavy emphasis on what WebOS can do for HP. It's an expensive brain drain.

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