webOS: Phil McKinney Hopes Third Time Could Be the Charm

by Steve Wildstrom   |   February 26th, 2013

Photo of Phil McKinney (HP)

webOS is the best mobile operating system that never really had a chance. It was developed by a struggling Palm but sank under the weight  of poor execution and inadequate capital. Hewlett-Packard acquired it with great hopes and even greater ambitions, but top management intrigue  undermined and ultimately killed the project. With the code released to open source, it languished for the past year and a half, unused except for the occasional hobbyist experiment, until its surprise purchase by LG, which plans to use it in televisions and other devices.

Is there really hope that the Korean electronics makers can revive an operating system that maintains an intense, if small, fan base. One expert who thinks it might is Phil McKinney, president and CEO of CableLabs, the cable industry’s research arm. McKinney was CTO of HP’s Personal Systems Group at the time of the Palm acquisition and was one of the architects of the aborted plan to make webOS a full-fledged rival to Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS

“The attraction of webOS is that it is HTML5 to the core,” McKinney said in an interview. “It’s a great platform for all kinds of systems. Early on, there was interest from TV manufacturers and other to find a way to use it.” Despite sitting on the shelf for many months, McKinney says “a lot of the features are still advanced. It has true multi-taking, a great multi-application user interface, and a notification system that was years ahead of Apple and Android.”

The big question in McKinney’s mind is whether LG can assemble right the team of engineers, make the required investments, and give it the breathing room it needs to deliver results. “Will LG put the resources behind it? Can they get the expertise?”  he asks. “If they thing they are buying it all tied up with a bow and ready to go, they aren;t right. Innovation always takes longer than you anticipate.”

McKinney, who at HP had dreams of webOS running seamlessly on everything from cellphones to PC desktops, hopes LG in in it for the long haul. “Every time I tweet about webOS I get flooded with emails. There’s still a lot of passion out there. I’m still a fan. It’s a great platform.”

 

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.
  • Rich

    If webOS is such a great platform, why was it ignored for a year and a half after it was released to open source?

    • steve_wildstrom

      First, it is very rare for an open-source project to succeed without an active sponsor. Linux is the leading exception. HP made it available, but did nothing to support the effort (unlike, say, IBM with both Eclipse and Apache.)

      Second, it wasn’t like you could just pick it up an run with it. As McKinney said, it had great potential but didn’t have a bow tied around it. Someone had to be prepared to invest a fair amount in it to make it competitive. We’ll see if LG really is that someone.

  • rj

    I never used it myself, but was always interested in trying it.

    Sadly, this reminds me of BeOS and the Amiga – two other technically advanced products that got handed off from one owner to the next as they faded into irrelevance.