Thoughts on Open Source and webOS

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So, in what seems like pretty much the definition of a middle-of-the-road decision, HP has turned webOS into open source software. They’ll keep (some undetermined number of) webOS employees on hand, make (some undetermined amount of) investments into the platform’s future, and perhaps make tablets based on webOS sometime in the future (2013 seems likely). You can read all about this in a number of places.

What I want to discuss, briefly, is what this means for webOS fans. You know who I’m talking about—the died-in-the-wool, hardcore, bleed-Palm-orange kind of fans, who as of yesterday morning before the news broke still held out hope that HP would announce a multi-billion dollar regeneration of the webOS platform. They didn’t get their wishes, but what did they get? Let’s give it some thought.

For the Hobbyist

First, making webOS open source is essentially a gift from HP to one of the most loyal user bases out there. Sure, tens of millions of Apple fans use iOS, but let’s face it—they’re not exactly suffering from a paucity of apps, inferior hardware, and a generally dismal ecosystem. No, I think loyalty is measured best when the going gets rough, and of course webOS has had some rough going lately. Or forever, actually.

By opening up webOS and promising to support it into the future, HP has made it clear to the webOS community that not only is their favorite platform still alive, but that they (or their favorite webOS “hacker” friends at webOS Internals) can get their grubby little mitts on the deepest most luscious bits of webOS and do with it as they will. Don’t like HP and Palm hardware? No problem—just fire up that unlocked HTC or Samsung beast and displace Android. It’ll run so much better on webOS, right?

In one fell swoop, HP has given the most hardcore webOS fan what he or she has always wanted: the ability to run webOS on today’s best hardware. For many webOS fans, this by itself is sufficient for instant bliss. Forget about apps (who needs ‘em?) or media support (my MP3’s will run anywhere) or content (Nook? What’s that, where people eat breakfast?). For these folks, webOS out of the box, with a nice Twitter app and a few others, has only lacked decent hardware. That’s one box that can now get checked off.

All of this says nothing about the commercial viability of webOS, of course, but for many people how well something does in the market just doesn’t matter. Linux is a prime example—it’s an abject failure compared to Windows and OS X, but don’t tell that to Linux fans. They’ll point out the many outstanding distros and how well they run on low-end hardware and… well, seriously, don’t say that at all to Linux fans if you want to get out of the room alive. The point is that Linux is doing just fine, thanks, and isn’t going anywhere. The webOS fans we’re talking about here would be just fine if the mobile OS achieved essentially the same stature.

And, it’s entirely possible. Linux survives probably because Apache Web servers run a huge percentage of the world’s Internet sites. Linux will continue to be developed and supported because without it, the Internet would grind to a halt. This spills over onto the Linux desktop, and while I’m oversimplifying things and probably wrong on a number of accounts, I’m really just trying to draw an analogy. The point is, webOS will survive even as a “hobbyist” platform because HP wants it to do so. We can rely on HP at this juncture because, first, their new CEO, Meg Whitman, isn’t a complete and utter moron, and understands that HP really does have a reputation to uphold, and second, because the investment was suddenly rendered not much more than a rounding error on HP’s financial statements.

HP can continue to make this kind of investment in webOS essentially forever. They’ve already written off $3.3 billion for the original webOS investment, and going forward HP probably spends more on research into arcane Tibetan rituals. Or something. You get my point.

As far as the software itself goes, there’s far more value to being open sourced than just running it on whatever hardware is available. There’s also the fact that, finally, one won’t have to say about all those excellent patches one finds on Preware, “if only HP would add them right into webOS.” Like a patch? No problem. Some developer will just bake it into the source code. No longer will webOS be full of facepalm moments like the inability to create new app launcher pages, as with the earliest editions. Nope. From now on, webOS will improve at something faster than a glacial pace, and that thought makes the typical webOS aficionado simply giddy.

But Is It Commercially Viable?

Speaking for myself, I left webOS because I found the platform to be too limited. I’ve written about it on a number of occasions. As an avid reader and (eternally) aspiring writer, I like having access to every major ebook ecosystem on the planet (Kindle, Nook, Google Books, Kobo, and Sony), and I like getting the latest and greatest apps and content within a few weeks of their release. Android hasn’t attained iOS status in this regard, but it’s pretty darn close. In short, while I love webOS as a mobile operating system, I’m not such a fan of it as a mobile platform. And, I won’t become one until it achieves some relevant level of commercial support.

Were it not for one particularly important factor, I wouldn’t give webOS much of a chance in this regard. While HP has essentially done with webOS what Google did with Android, I think the market is too far along for such an effort to be successful. The smartphone market was quite immature and malleable when Android was born. The iPhone had knocked the incumbents, Windows Mobile, Blackberry, and PalmOS, for a loop (although only RIM didn’t know it), but hadn’t yet achieved such a share of the overall phone market that other players faced impossible odds.

Today, that’s no longer true. Android and iOS dominate, in much the same way that Windows and OS X dominate on the desktop (although more equally, which makes things even harder for new players). Microsoft is engaged in a life or death struggle to make Windows Phone successful. And of course RIM would rather not cease to exist. So, the idea of a new player coming into the market—and make no mistake about it, webOS might as well be a new company, which even Whitman pointed out when she called the webOS group a “startup”—and the idea of it gaining traction is almost laughable.

While the prospects for webOS tablets is better than the prospects for webOS smartphones, barely, really the platform would need both to survive. There are just too many potential synergies for either to stand alone. The question then becomes, what manufacturers would take a chance on webOS smartphones given the tremendous investments in research and development and support, and what carriers would buy them given the track record of every webOS device that’s ever been made?

By itself, I’d say webOS’s prospects were pretty dismal. However, there’s one caveat here. When HP bought Palm, they didn’t just get some people, an operating system, and some questionable hardware assets, they also took control of perhaps some of the most important intellectual property assets in the mobile space. Palm was the earliest smartphone maker—indeed, one could argue that they created the smartphone, and might have the patents to prove it. Android smartphone makers continue to face some pretty egregious costs because Apple and Microsoft see IP as the platform’s greatest weakness. Unless US patent law is rewritten to make software patents more rational, this isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

webOS makers, however, could potentially be sheltered from Apple and Microsoft by HP’s potent patent portfolio. Note that early in the development of webOS, Apple rattled some sabers about certain areas where webOS might infringe on Apple patents. Palm rattled back, and not another word was heard. Either Apple simply didn’t see webOS as enough of a threat, or Steve Jobs didn’t see webOS as purely ripping off iOS, or Apple’s lawyers peeked into Palm’s patent war chest and didn’t like what they saw, but no matter. Apple (and Microsoft) never did file any lawsuits against Palm or HP.

For an HTC or Samsung facing increasingly expensive lawsuits and licenses from Apple and Microsoft, and open source webOS could suddenly become interesting as a hedge against this glaring Android weakness. Deciding whether to invest in webOS would become a simple math exercise comparing the cost of developing and support webOS devices against the cost of paying Microsoft license fees and setting aside large sums of money to defend against Apple’s litigation.

That’s the only scenario where I can see webOS achieve any kind of commercial success. How likely is it? I’d put it at somewhere close to 100 to 1 odds against, simply because I see the smartphone market as perhaps one of the most competitively vicious in the history of commerce. And, it’ll be 2013 before we’ll have any clue, unless someone like Samsung has already started working on the possibility.

Conclusion

So, in the end, I see HP’s decision as both awesome for the webOS faithful, that is, the webOS hobbyist, but not so great for someone like me who wants his smartphones and tablets to be well-supported by developers and content providers. I can imagine going back to webOS in 2013 or 2014, kind of like I can imagine buying a Porsche 911 Turbo sometime before I die. It’s not terribly likely, but then again it’s not impossible, and so I’ll reserve a little corner of my mind for the possibility.

What do you think? Are you convinced that HP’s decision makes webOS a truly viable mobile platform, or are you just looking forward to slapping webOS on that HTC Evo 3D you have laying around? Let me know in the comments.

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