Why developers shouldn't abandon WebOS yet

There's life in the former Palm's platform still, but only if it can lose the albatross that is HP

Hewlett-Packard's surprise announcement that it would end production of its WebOS smartphones and tablets left a lot of developers in a lurch (although exact numbers are hard to come by). As of now, the WebOS development community is effectively an ecosystem in search of a platform.

What next? The smartphone OS market is consolidating, with the lion's share divided between Google's Android and Apple's iOS. Either one of those would be a fine choice for WebOS developers looking to jump ship, but neither offers a development environment that much resembles the WebOS SDK. Meanwhile, Microsoft has been actively wooing WebOS developers to come over to Windows Phone 7, with promises of free smartphones, training, and tools.

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Maybe all this talk of abandoning WebOS is premature. Chances are most WebOS developers are already writing apps for more than one mobile OS. That could buy WebOS some time. Despite all the doom and gloom, it may turn out that WebOS developers' best strategy might be the one that most pundits were quickest to dismiss: Stick to your guns, bide your time, and plan to remain WebOS developers once the platform finds a new home -- because it's highly unlikely we've heard the last of this promising mobile OS.

Developers with dedication
It's easy to dismiss HP's plan to license WebOS as half-baked. HP doesn't have any experience licensing operating systems to outside parties, let alone maintaining a vertically integrated app store infrastructure like what customers have come to expect of a smartphone platform.

Even if it did, who would want what HP has to offer? Compared to Android or iOS, WebOS's market share is puny. Building a third OS into a viable contender would require a serious investment -- and if Microsoft can't manage it, who can?

Still, if anything could encourage a potential suitor, it's the fact that WebOS developers are nothing if not loyal. They chose WebOS despite its underdog status, knowing full well that a smaller audience meant fewer potential app sales. That kind of engaged, enthusiastic developer community is an essential ingredient for any OS platform that hopes to muscle in on the Big Two.

Palm realized this early on, so it took pains to ensure that WebOS would be a developer-friendly platform. True to its name, the WebOS programming model is based on familiar Web technologies, including HTML, CSS, and JavaScript -- a concept that has since been validated by Microsoft's plans for Windows 8. With the addition of the WebOS Plug-in Development Kit (PDK), more advanced developers can add native code to their WebOS apps for performance-intensive gaming and calculation. In addition, WebOS devices are friendly to "homebrew" firmware modifications, making them attractive to hard-core gadget hackers.

What few WebOS customers there were seemed to like it, too. When complaints arose, they tended to focus on the lackluster, underpowered hardware that was available for the platform, not its software or its UI. When the second generation of WebOS smartphones failed to bring major hardware improvements, consumers lost interest.

Who will step up for WebOS?
That fact could offer a clue as to who might be willing to pick up WebOS where HP left off. If the key to success for WebOS is better hardware, then smartphone manufacturers are in the best position to make that happen.

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