Touchpad dropped but this week...

HP open-sources webOS – last chance saloon for mass appeal or commercial oblivion?

Chris Mayer

Will this move challenge Android in the open source race? Probably not…

After murmurings that HP were looking for a buyer for its dormant webOS, news broke on Friday that the company had decided to strike out on its own – open sourcing the platform to developers.

Despite the recent news that HP were to discontinue TouchPad, HP has decided to make the source code for the operating system available to developers, after assessing ways to plug the sinkhole that is webOS.

HP President and CEO, Meg Whitman said in a press release

webOS is the only platform designed from the ground up to be mobile, cloud-connected and scalable. By contributing this innovation, HP unleashes the creativity of the open source community to advance a new generation of applications and devices.

She also told AllThingsD that HP would make a substantial software development:

This is a wonderful asset, actually, but what I was telling employees this morning is you’re a start-up now. You’re a start-up with a number of people, 750,000 installed devices out there, and with your first venture capitalist – and that’s HP. Let’s go figure out how to change the world out there.”

HP state within the press release that they are fully behind open sourcing webOS, with Whitman hinting that HP are still interested in a future with webOS tablets/smartphones. How much will be invested here is anyone’s guess.

  • The goal of the project is to accelerate the open development of the webOS platform
  • HP will be an active participant and investor in the project
  • Good, transparent and inclusive governance to avoid fragmentation
  • Software will be provided as a pure open source project

The news created quite the stir within the industry, with many analysts penning differing responses to the decision to open source both webOS and their Enyo application framework. Some believe it to be a good move, albeit too late, with webOS enthusiasts proclaiming that only now may we see the benefits of the platform being leveraged as developers use the source code under an open source license. 

Others were slightly more unforgiving with their assessment, suggesting that HP were forced into open sourcing as they couldn’t find a buyer for it, only a year after parting with £767m ($1.2bn) for the software from Palm.

But after the recent Ebay firesale for refurbed Touchpads (with as many as 200,000 flocking to the sale to pick up a TouchPad for $99) perhaps there is still a market wanting to see development on the platform, and crucially could be the persuasion that developers need to switch across. Some may be disenchanted with Android’s variety of flavours making it difficult to make it work with the original source code and with webOS, it’d be a fresh start.

The slight flaw in that is why would anyone want to switch away from Android at this present time?

It’s a proven haven for developers to create applications as they wish. Sure, webOS may be better than Android in some parts (as Whitman states with webOS works with higher-resolution screens, dual-core processors, and mobile hotspot modes) but the fact that Android has Google as its financial backer means that it simply can’t be budged from its perch, no matter how prevalent a community is.

Plus the fact that webOS would need to have an umbrella foundation (similar to Apache) to really kickstart the movement and as of yet, we’ve no idea how this will occur.

With several Linux open source choices available to developers, it seems slightly illogical to join a sinking ship. HP’s claims that it is behind the open source vision, but how much substance is there within those words – with dead set dates for releases?

And after its public search for buyer to fix the hole shows that no one wants to touch it just yet. Perhaps with HTC or Samsung putting their weight behind webOS could it gain any notable traction, enticing others to webOS, but as it stands, it only has the flagging Palm.

And finally the biggest problem, as brilliantly demonstrated by Steven Vaughan-Nichols:

The admission that HP will likely build its own tablet down the road is enough of a potential obstacle to prevent OEMs from taking on a big development cost to produce a webOS tablet. Why would an HTC or other company jump on a questionable platform, knowing that by the time they get a product to market that HP is going to jump in and compete directly with them? It’s like HP wants to give OEMs the cake yet eat it before they get a chance.

So in conclusion, will this announcement really have any ramifications for Android? Unlikely, but as we all know, it takes a few years after open sourcing to see the benefits of doing so. Just ask those behind the little green droid.

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