Then there's the intellectual property issue. Let's not forget that the smartphone market is fraught with patent disputes, and it's unlikely that HP's own patent portfolio will be sufficient to keep WebOS from being dragged into that quagmire, should it ever become a worthwhile target. The necessary legal due diligence alone may be enough to convince potential contributors to stick with the platforms they already know.
HP must invest for WebOS to succeed
But let's assume HP genuinely wants to use open source as a springboard to revitalize WebOS. Besides dedicating its own developer resources to the project, HP can take a number of other actions to convince the community that this move is more than just a cynical code dump.
First, it can fix the branding. The Palm name still has cachet with those of us who remember Palm's pioneering PDAs, but "HP WebOS" sounds pretty hokey in 2012. Is there any OS platform left that doesn't support Web standards? If HP wants to attract more developers now, it must attract customers first, and for that, good marketing is essential.
Second, HP should release as much code as possible under an Apache, BSD, or similarly permissive license. Dual licensing under the GPL might leave HP with more opportunities to monetize the platform, but it won't garner as much interest from hardware makers, who are what WebOS needs most. Past WebOS handset and tablet offerings have been lackluster. If HP doesn't want to build future devices itself, it must partner with leading companies that do.
A commercial-friendly open source license would essentially be giving the WebOS code away, but HP can still profit in two main ways. It can continue to operate its App Catalog as the premiere source for WebOS apps and take a cut of every sale, as Apple and Google do with their respective app stores. It can also develop add-on applications and cloud services to integrate with the platform, via its HP Synergy technology or some other mechanism, which can provide revenue via advertising or paid subscriptions.
Finally, HP should keep thinking beyond smartphones and tablets. HP has taken some flak for suggesting it bought Palm so that it could build WebOS into PCs and printers, but positioning WebOS as a universal UI for consumer electronics is a good strategy. In fact, HP should extend the platform's reach even further, by embracing applications for health care and other vertical markets. The more ubiquitous the WebOS experience becomes, the better.
Admittedly, this is a tall order. It means HP must take on significant risks for limited short-term gain. If all HP wants to do is recoup the $1.2 billion it spent on Palm, doubtless it will be reluctant to invest still more in WebOS. Yet invest it must, or else at this point it may as well write that $1.2 billion off as a loss. Either HP is committed to building a future for WebOS or it isn't. If it isn't, it can't expect the open source community to be, either.
This article, "How HP and open source can save WebOS," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in programming at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.