WebOS: A New Birth or The Last Nail?

Hewlett Packard recently announced that although they technically were going to keep ownership of WebOS, they were also going to release the code as Open Source. This basically means that they are giving it away for free. Combined with HP’s decision to cease selling WebOS based smartphones and tablets, the only remaining assets of any value from last year’s $1.2 Billion purchase of Palm by HP might be a few patents.

Companies giving away the source code to a formerly proprietary product is the traditional way in which technology companies have cushioned the blow of abandoning responsibility for a group of customers. It means that it will not be completely impossible for customers to fix their own problems in the future. It also offers hope that somebody somewhere might adopt the orphan program and continue to grow it. Does it ever work out that way? Usually the software simply accelerates its plunge into obscurity, but there are exceptions.

For one, academia loves open source software. It provides a basis that they can teach from and avoids copyright issues if the institution creates something worthwhile. When companies like Microsoft keep their source code secret, it means that universities cannot teach students how to create, modify, and maintain operating systems using Windows. So they use Linux, and as a result there is a large and enthusiastic user base for it coming out of the universities. In other cases there is sufficient interest and revenue leverage to make a renewed product a commercial success. The most notable example of this was Netscape Navigator, which AOL abandoned. There was enough of an interest in a viable alternative browser to Internet Explorer that Mozilla used it as the basis of Firefox, which is unquestionably popular.

Will anything like this happen to WebOS? Much as I like rooting for underdogs, I think not. Here are the reasons:

  1. Nothing has changed in the chicken-and-egg problem with developer support and apps. Even when Palm and later HP were still selling WebOS devices there were not enough to attract developer’s attention to support an additional operating system. Now with no WebOS devices being sold, it will be even less attractive.
  2. The phone OS space already has plenty of choices in iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. It is much easier to find programmers who see a need to have an alternative when there is currently only one dominant choice (as in the case of Internet Explorer before Firefox). Finding a programmer who passionately believes that there should be a fourth choice is a different matter.
  3. Most of the Source Code for Android is available under Open Source, so academia has no pressing need for another research code base.
  4. The smartphone industry has lately seen a seemingly endless parade of patent challenges. Just because you have a ‘free’ OS doesn’t mean that Microsoft, Apple, and Google won’t come demanding license fees for use of their patents.
  5. The image of WebOS is tainted by HP’s failure. Any company thinking of investing even a little to bring a WebOS smartphone or tablet to market is going to wonder ‘What makes us think that we can win where HP lost $1.2 Billion?’

So while anybody can now bring out a WebOS smartphone or tablet to market, HP has made it clear that it will not be them. In their announcement, HP stated that they will be concentrating on having Windows 8 based tablet computers ready to go. Dell has also been trimming its offerings of Android tablets under the premise of making room for new products. It is clear that the longtime PC vendors like Dell and HP believe that their strong association with Windows will give them the dominant position in Windows 8 tablets, while leaving the Android devices to Samsung, HTC, and other phone makers.

Interestingly these developments follow what I said over a month ago regarding what HP should do now that they have decided to not sell the Personal Systems Group.

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