Open Source webOS: A Nice Gesture, but a Sad End

by Steve Wildstrom   |   December 9th, 2011

In the end, Hewlett-Packard could neither use webOS to gain a foothold in the smartphone and tablet market, nor could it sell the operating system it acquired as part of the $1.2 billion purchase of Palm last year. So it is giving it away, releasing the code and the application framework under an open source license. The sad truth is that we are unlikely to ever again see webOS in a commercially viable smartphone or tablet.

Sad face TouchPadFor webOS to have a real life after HP, some hardware maker would have had to snap it up. But the likeliest suspects, Samsung and HTC, already have their hands full with Android and Windows Phone, and perhaps Windows 8 too. Amazon was a rumored buyer, but it has little interest in taking on a major OS development project; it’s doing just fine with an old version of Android.

The problem is that successful mobile software has to be co-developed with the hardware it runs on. Of the current mobile players, the one pure software company, Google, is getting into hardware with the purchase of Motorola Mobility. And it continues to work intimately with its leading hardware partners on design. Microsoft gives its Windows Phone hardware partners very limited freedom in their design choices. Apple, of course, is the maestro of integrated mobile hardware and software, and it was in an attempt to emulate Apple’s success that HP bought Palm in the first place.

There’s a good reason for this. The mobile user experience depends to a huge degree on how smoothly the hardware and software work together. A huge part of Apple’s success is based on the fact that it and third-party iOS developers know every detail of the very limited variety of devices they write for. In that environment, the hardware and software become one, and this makes for happy users.

Attempts to develop mobile operating systems in isolation have a sorry history. Intel and various partners tried with Moblin, MeeGo, and Tizen and left us with nothing but a pile of odd names.  The LiMo Foundation had no greater success with its attempt to create a mobile Linux.

I’m sure open source webOS will attract a bunch of enthusiastic developers, who will succeed in getting it to run on commodity hardware. But if there were a real chance of getting a product out of this, someone would have shown interest in buying webOS for what I am sure was a bargain-basement price. Instead, they saw a pit full of Pres and TouchPads and 3 billion of HP shareholders’ dollars.

The sad end of webOS is a terrible shame. It was an extremely promising operating system that never really got a chance, hobbled as it was first by the financial weakness of Palm and then by the incompetence and lack of staying power of HP. It deserved much better.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.