Can WebOS have a new life in business?

What HP needs to do with Palm's OS so that it can take on an enterprise mission

Poor Palm WebOS -- a year ago, it was the great hope for those seeking an iPhone-killer and for Palm's survival after a decade of constant internal politicking at the expense of product development. When WebOS arrived, it showed promise, but it was not the slam dunk that Palm needed or Apple-baiters wanted. Google's Android OS quickly became the rising mobile operating system, and WebOS drifted until this spring, when Hewlett-Packard bought it as part of its Palm acquisition.

HP and Palm officials are now largely silent on plans for WebOS as they figure out the details of what to do with it. There's been some talk about using WebOS in HP printers (perhaps so they can directly run some applications around photo editing and document management) and porting WebOS to work on tablets, not just smartphones -- both are obvious directions for WebOS.

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But last week at the MobileBeat conference, Ben Galbraith, Palm's vice president for developer relations, suggested another possible direction for WebOS: the enterprise. He noted HP's deep roots in the data center and with corporate users. And he suggested that WebOS made more sense for corporate IT than other client-oriented environments because of WebOS's heavy basis in HTML5. Corporate IT developers aren't so experienced in C++ development, he said, but they do know Web development. "WebOS matches the labor force," he said.

I think Galbraith is being a bit condescending to enterprise developers with that statement, but it's true that there are many more Web developers out there than C++ developers. It's also true that having an object-oriented version of C hasn't caused potential iPhone developers to stay away.

Still, because WebOS apps are largely Web apps, corporate IT developers should be able to port their existing Web services fairly easily to WebOS, which could theoretically give WebOS an enterprise advantage, especially if HP were to release iPad-style slate tablets and more capable versions of the Palm Pre that would be better suited to business users.

And there's the rub. Right now, WebOS is not that great of a business OS. Like Android, it offers an insufficient subset of Microsoft Exchange policy support for most enterprises. There's no on-device encryption, for example. Support for the whole range of Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies is essential for a business smartphone, especially because Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Notes, and Novell GroupWise will have all standardized on EAS by 2011 as their corporate mobile connection technology. Any enterprise uses one of these servers for email, calendars, and contacts.

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