How HP and Open Source Can Save WebOS

Hewlett-Packard's announcement last week that it plans to release the source code to WebOS under an open source license could be the former Palm platform's last, best hope of gaining a meaningful foothold in the mobile market -- but only if HP handles the transition to open source the right way.

Ever since it debuted in 2009, WebOS has struggled to win market share from its better-heeled rivals, including Apple iOS and Google Android. Sales figures of the first wave of WebOS devices were disappointing, to say the least. When HP acquired Palm in 2010, it vowed to breathe new life into the platform, but a concrete strategy never emerged. Just one month after shipping its TouchPad tablet, HP announced it would no longer manufacture WebOS devices, leaving WebOS without any hardware licensees.

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That's a shame because those few customers who bought into the WebOS platform were generally enthusiastic about it. More important, developers liked it -- and a thriving independent developer community is crucial to the success of any OS, as Palm was well aware.

By releasing WebOS as open source, HP hopes to engage that developer community to rejuvenate the platform and attract new interest from device manufacturers. But as timid as HP was about marketing WebOS as a proprietary system, is it ready to put its full energy and support behind WebOS as an open source project? Or is its plan simply to throw the source code over the wall and hope for the best? To do the latter would surely be the final nail in WebOS's coffin.

Is HP reviving WebOS or abandoning it?

HP's press release offers few specifics. We don't know which open source license (or licenses) it plans to use for WebOS or what form the project's governance will take. To its credit, HP says it is "committed to good, transparent, and inclusive governance to avoid fragmentation of the platform." What it hasn't said, however, is how committed it is to ongoing WebOS development.

Unfortunately, the answer might be "not very." A month ago, HP wasn't talking about open source; it was trying to sell off its whole Palm division, WebOS and all. Rumored bidders included Intel and Qualcomm. The catch: Any buyer would have had to agree to license WebOS back to HP at a deep discount. It seems HP may only be truly committed to the platform if it can offload the cost of developing and maintaining it.

Yet if that's what HP hopes to achieve by opening the WebOS source, it's bound to be disappointed. Most open source projects rely on dedicated developers to set their tone and direction, not casual contributors, and effective management of an active open source community can be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive.

What's more, WebOS won't be the first open source mobile platform on the market or even the most popular. Android is far and away the leader in that category. Merging the WebOS code base with Android might be a possibility, but that would seem to run contrary to HP's goals. Meanwhile, open source has hardly been a magic bullet for LiMo, Maemo, MeeGo, Moblin, or Tizen -- platforms whose combined market share is so small it makes WebOS look like Windows.

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.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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