Update: This story has been changed to correct an earlier mischaracterization of WebOS's performance on the iPad2.
There's no denying that HP's abrupt decision to discontinue WebOS tablets and phones is a blow to consumer choice and the mobile arena in general. With WebOS out of the picture I believe there are really just two competitors now: iOS and Android.
And no, I'm not forgetting Windows--that was deliberate.
It's always disappointing to see competitors display a breathtaking lack of fortitude, and that's what HP just did. Linux-powered WebOS could have been a winner for them, but they bailed way too early and essentially without a fight.
Very few product wars are won within a few months of release.
HP's loss, however, has the great potential to be someone else's gain. Sad as HP's decision may be, it's premature to declare WebOS dead. Criticisms of the WebOS-powered TouchPad, after all, focused primarily on its hardware and relative paucity of apps--not the operating system itself.
WebOS itself, actually, garnered significant praise, even from the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg. It's also just recently been found to run twice as fast on an iPad2 as it does on the TouchPad. This isn't a technology to throw away.
In fact, there are many ways this situation could unfold that could turn WebOS from a tragically wasted opportunity into a market-altering advantage for someone else. After all, now that we have Googlerola--not to mention the potential implications of the Oracle lawsuit--the future isn't quite so clear for Linux-based Android.
Any mobile competitor other than Apple has some choices to make. Let's look at just a few of them.
If WebOS is to be kept a closed and proprietary system, my vote for best-favored purchaser is HTC.
With the advent of Googlerola, Android's licensing future is at least somewhat less clear, and HTC could pair WebOS with its winning hardware for a unique market advantage. It's hard to differentiate yourself in the Android world; with WebOS, HTC could stand out and deliver like never before.
As another maker of popular Android smartphones, Samsung may also be wondering about its future given Google’s Motorola purchase and lawsuit woes. Samsung has recently stepped up its focus on Bada, but WebOS could offer a more developed complement--or alternative.
We all know Facebook has been dying to develop a mobile competitor; this could be its big opportunity, and without all the trouble of starting more or less from scratch.
After all, Facebook has one of the most popular iPhone apps out there. Imagine what it could do with a unique, branded mobile platform that enables capabilities that haven't been seen before--at a bargain price, and without the stern oversight of Steve Jobs or need to interact with Google.
I really hope Zuckerberg is seriously considering it.
4. Open Source
Last but certainly not least is the option for HP or some other purchaser to open source WebOS. This, indeed, is actually my favorite option.
HP itself, or a purchaser of WebOS, could release the software as open source and thereby help to bring a whole new world of software, standards, and freedom to the market. The result could be even more disruptive than Android has been.
Whatever happens, I think it's crazy to view WebOS as a dead done deal. This technology could be just what it takes to give the market a whole new lease on life.