HP Makes webOS Open Source: Can it Survive?

Craig Buckler

On December 9, 2011 Hewlett-Packard announced it would contribute webOS to the open source community. HP will continue to support webOS but other hardware vendors will be free to use it within their smartphones and tablets.

What is webOS?

Introduced at CES 2009, webOS is a Linux-based successor to Palm OS. Built from the ground-up, the operating system supports multi-touch, multi-tasking and cloud synchronization. The platform also offers exciting opportunities to web developers: native apps can be developed using HTML5, CSS and Javascript and released though the App Catalog or from any website.

The first device to use webOS was the Palm Pre followed shortly after by the Pixi. Reviews were mostly positive but the early handsets suffered build-quality problems. A relatively high price and lack of apps led to modest sales. Although Palm released free developer tools and documentation, few programmers were prepared to write software for a niche platform.

In April 2010, HP acquired the failing Palm company for $1.2 billion. HP had ambitious plans for webOS: it would appear in smartphones, tablets, printers and as a fast dual-boot option on Windows PCs.

The webOS-powered HP TouchPad was launched in July 2011. Reviews were mixed, sales were poor and — just seven weeks later — HP announced that it would discontinue all current hardware running webOS. 500 people were cut from the webOS division and its future was in doubt.

Where Did It Go Wrong?

HP recognized that webOS faced tough competition from iOS and Android devices. A seven week trial period seems incredibly short, but HP was already late to the smartphone party and would have needed to spend millions on marketing to dent the established players.

HP is also a Microsoft partner. WebOS would have undoubtedly damaged their relationship and was it redundant following Microsoft’s smartphone and fast-booting Windows 8 projects?

Can webOS Survive?

webOS is a great platform with potential. It doesn’t have the vendor lock-in of Apple and Microsoft products or the fragmentation encountered by Android developers.

Cynics will point out that Nokia gave Symbian to the open source community but it failed to gain traction. However, unlike Symbian, webOS is a more modern OS with good development tools and documentation. Smartphone vendors are certain to consider it as a viable alternative to Android especially if they can attract third-party application developers.

I have a single reservation. Why would web developers choose to create native HTML5 webOS apps when a standard HTML5 web app would work on most modern devices? The advantages of native app development reduces every week: HTML5 games can be fast and integration APIs for geolocation, cameras, address books etc. are increasingly available.

Perhaps webOS has a chance if vendors position it as the best smartphone and tablet platform for running standard HTML5 web applications?

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