Hewlett-Packard said Friday that the computing hardware giant has decided to contribute its webOS mobile software platform to the open-source community. HP obtained the rights to webOS when the company acquired Palm for $1.2 billion in April 2010.
Hewlett-Packard initially had high hopes for webOS as an operating system that it could run side-by-side on the company's next-generation Windows desktop PCs and laptops. Following the departure of CEO Leo Apotheker and the demise of HP's webOS-based media tablet, however, the company has decided that the best way to enable webOS to evolve is to fully engage the resources of the open-source community.
"WebOS is the only platform designed from the ground up to be mobile, cloud-connected and scalable," said HP CEO Meg Whitman on Friday. "By contributing this innovation, HP unleashes the creativity of the open-source community to advance a new generation of applications and devices."
This is an exit strategy for HP and not a bad one at that, noted Al Hilwa, director of applications software development at IDC. "It throws a bone to the small but passionate community that appears to be interested in evolving webOS," Hilwa said Friday.
An Unwinnable Battle
Earlier this year, industry observers had expected HP to recoup part of its $1.2 billion investment in Palm by selling the webOS platform to another company. Though some analysts viewed Amazon as a potential webOS buyer, the online retail giant adopted a customized version of Android instead to enable its Kindle Fire tablet customers to access selected apps from Google's Android Market.
Hilwa believes that HP ultimately realized that the company could not use webOS to build a top-tier application and content ecosystem that could compete with well entrenched mobile rivals such as Apple and Google.
"For mobile devices, iOS and Android have an early lead, with Microsoft and RIM on their heels," Hilwa said. "WebOS has found it difficult to breakthrough as the market matures and coalesces -- drawing clearer battles for developer mindshare down the road."
HP said Friday that the open-source community will obtain access to the underlying code for webOS under an open-source license. The goal is to enable developers, partners, and other hardware manufacturers to commercially release ongoing webOS enhancements as well as new platform versions.
A Question Of Commitment
HP said that its own engineers will continue to be active in the development and support of webOS as the platform evolves. The company also plans to contribute the application framework for webOS known as ENYO to the open-source community.
"There are many mobile Linux derivatives that have small communities of developers interested in keeping them alive, and webOS may generate more excitement than others due to its usability advantages," Hilwa said.
Hilwa believes, however, that it is unlikely webOS will ever become a threat to the top mobile platforms available in the marketplace today.
"It is unlikely that any of these will achieve critical mass without deep-pocketed corporate sponsors with ecosystem building skills," Hilwa said.
As for just who will benefit from HP's generosity will depend on the nature of the open-source license under which webOS is released, Hilwa said.
"A good question for HP would be to what degree they will be using webOS internally for printers or in other embedded settings," Hilwa said. "The more they use it, the more they are likely to invest in evolving the code."