How HP and open source can save WebOS

If HP wants a future for struggling WebOS, it must invest in the platform -- not abandon it

Hewlett-Packard's announcement last week that it plans to release the source code to WebOS under an open source license could be the former Palm platform's last, best hope of gaining a meaningful foothold in the mobile market -- but only if HP handles the transition to open source the right way.

Ever since it debuted in 2009, WebOS has struggled to win market share from its better-heeled rivals, including Apple iOS and Google Android. Sales figures of the first wave of WebOS devices were disappointing, to say the least. When HP acquired Palm in 2010, it vowed to breathe new life into the platform, but a concrete strategy never emerged. Just one month after shipping its TouchPad tablet, HP announced it would no longer manufacture WebOS devices, leaving WebOS without any hardware licensees.

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That's a shame because those few customers who bought into the WebOS platform were generally enthusiastic about it. More important, developers liked it -- and a thriving independent developer community is crucial to the success of any OS, as Palm was well aware.

By releasing WebOS as open source, HP hopes to engage that developer community to rejuvenate the platform and attract new interest from device manufacturers. But as timid as HP was about marketing WebOS as a proprietary system, is it ready to put its full energy and support behind WebOS as an open source project? Or is its plan simply to throw the source code over the wall and hope for the best? To do the latter would surely be the final nail in WebOS's coffin.

Is HP reviving WebOS or abandoning it?
HP's press release offers few specifics. We don't know which open source license (or licenses) it plans to use for WebOS or what form the project's governance will take. To its credit, HP says it is "committed to good, transparent, and inclusive governance to avoid fragmentation of the platform." What it hasn't said, however, is how committed it is to ongoing WebOS development.

Unfortunately, the answer might be "not very." A month ago, HP wasn't talking about open source; it was trying to sell off its whole Palm division, WebOS and all. Rumored bidders included Intel and Qualcomm. The catch: Any buyer would have had to agree to license WebOS back to HP at a deep discount. It seems HP may only be truly committed to the platform if it can offload the cost of developing and maintaining it.

Yet if that's what HP hopes to achieve by opening the WebOS source, it's bound to be disappointed. Most open source projects rely on dedicated developers to set their tone and direction, not casual contributors, and effective management of an active open source community can be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive.

What's more, WebOS won't be the first open source mobile platform on the market or even the most popular. Android is far and away the leader in that category. Merging the WebOS code base with Android might be a possibility, but that would seem to run contrary to HP's goals. Meanwhile, open source has hardly been a magic bullet for LiMo, Maemo, MeeGo, Moblin, or Tizen -- platforms whose combined market share is so small it makes WebOS look like Windows.

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