HP dumps WebOS on open source world

HP's decision to cut its $1.2 billion losses and open up WebOS was likely the only choice it had

HP announced today plans to contribute WebOS and its Enyo application framework to the open source community, a move that may all but the seal the fate of the once-promising mobile platform.

The company, which picked up WebOS through its infamous $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm in 2010, put a typically rosy spin on its decision to dump the platform on the open source world, framing the move as an opportunity for WebOS to flourish: "WebOS is the only platform designed from the ground up to be mobile, cloud-connected, and scalable," said Meg Whitman, HP president and CEO, in a statement. "By contributing this innovation, HP unleashes the creativity of the open source community to advance a new generation of applications and devices."

The stark reality is HP badly bumbled its mobile play, and releasing WebOS into the open source wild is likely the best way for the company to cut its losses and save face. What other choices did the company have?

Option one would have been to stay the course, which was getting HP nowhere, as evidenced by the reception to and ultimate bargain-bin fate of its WebOS-powered TouchPad.

Option two would have been to spin off the WebOS unit into its own company. That strategy fared poorly for Palm when it spun off the original Palm OS in 2003, and now, HP would be facing piping-hot competition from Apple and Google, not to mention Microsoft and RIM. A spin-off would likely just have prolonged the agony.

Option three would have been to sell off WebOS to a third-party hardware maker, which might have covered a fraction of the loss HP took from buying Palm. It's safe to assume that no one out there made a bid -- or at least not high enough to keep HP from looking all the more foolish for its $1.2 billion folly.

Clearly, neither HP nor any potential suitors have enough faith in the profit potential of WebOS, leaving the company with two choices: outright locking the code in a vault, never to be seen again, or setting it free as open source. The open source alternative is the more prudent choice. It helps HP save a little face in front of investors as well as developers who backed WebOS. And who knows? Perhaps the platform will take on a new life in the hands of a particularly innovative or dedicated third party, and HP could even see some return on its investment down the road.

WebOS enthusiasts ought not get their hopes up, though. History shows that open source mobile platforms fare poorly; Moblin and Maemo, along with MeeGo and Tizen, are examples of efforts that went nowhere despite backing by large companies like Intel and Nokia.

HP said in its announcement that it "plans to continue to be active in the development and support of webOS," as well as an investor in the project, though time will tell just how active the company will be. As for transforming WebOS into an open source platform, HP said it plans to "engage the open source community to help define the charter of the open source project under a set of operating principles." Those include accelerating the platform's open development and pushing for "good, transparent, and inclusive governance to avoid fragmentation."

This story, "HP dumps WebOS on the open source world," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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