By Craig Buckler

HP Makes webOS Open Source: Can it Survive?

By 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?

  • Palm essentially killed itself and Blackberry has followed the Palm model. It began with the “milk the hardware” model where each successive phone released was only a slight improvement over the prior, hoping that they would get the faithful to buy again and spread the word. Then they both decided to improve their software and took far too long to get it done. By the time they did, iOS and Android blew right by them with superior hardware and nobody was impressed with the mostly baked last ditch attempts the companies offered. The Palm Pre was not nearly the rock solid beautiful device the way the Treo was when it set the hardware standard. Blackberry keeps releasing phones that are better than the prior but don’t stack up against the street. So why should anyone really care about developing the WebOS platform, no matter how much potential it has? As you said, in light of the fact that Windows 8 is coming out, WebOS has squeezed itself completely out of relevance and might have a handful of followers to take it nowhere quickly. I was baffled as to why HP even thought it should buy a company for $1.2 billion that was determined to head to bankruptcy within the year.

    • Thanks Mike – some interesting points.

      As I understood it, HP primarily wanted Palm for webOS so they could have their own phone and tablet platform. They abandoned the idea after realizing just how difficult and costly that would be. There aren’t many companies which could survive a $1.2 billion mistake.

      I hope we see a few webOS phones. The ideas were good even though the delivery wasn’t.

  • WebOS gives the best tablet computing experience an OS can provide. I can only comment about it on tablets, as I don’t think any webOS phones ever made it to Australia.

    Looking at an Android ICS phone in a Telstra store the other day, it seemed really obvious to me that Android has started to address its problems by copying webOS ideas, such as the way applications are closed by swiping them off the screen. I was quite surprised actually.

    I personally hope webOS is released under a GPL compatible free software license, so we can get the CyanogenMod equivalent for newer devices going forward – if not official support. Heck, I’d give it a go on my N900 if I could.

    I also wonder what kind of overhead there would be in converting a standard HTML5 web application to a native HTML5 webOS application, and is there any evidence webOS handles standard HTML5 web applications any worse than its competitors?

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