webOS: Forget About Licensing, the Game’s Over

Hewlett-Packard’s announcement today that it was discounting all webOS products, including the TouchPad tablet and Pre phones, set off a flurry of speculation that the elegant ex-Palm mobile operating system might find a third life through licensing to hardware manufacturers.

Sad TouchPad image

But the fact is that webOS is now stone, cold dead with no hope of revival. The issue has nothing to do with the quality of the software and everything to do with the state of the smartphone and tablet markets.

Just a couple of weeks ago, my colleague Ben Bajarin suggested that webOS could still mount a real challenge to Android if HP licensed it. But that assumed that HP would be standing behind the OS and continuing to court developers.

The biggest problem webOS faced from its Palm days through its 16 months of HP ownership was lack of support from third-party development. Even if someone, and I can’t quite imagine who, were announce tomorrow that they were taking over webOS,  it would take months to close the deal and get products back into production. The few remaining webOS developers aren’t going to wait. And the chances of restarting a development effort in the face of the Apple and Google juggernauts are nil.

I don’t know what went wrong with HP’s webOS effort. (Disclosure: I did a bit of consulting on mobile strategy with the company around the time of the Palm acquisition.) But I suspect the failure has a lot to do with HP’s never-ending boardroom dramas.

HP bought Palm in April, 2010. In early August, Mark Hurd was forced out as CEO of the company because of an “inappropriate relationship” with a contractor.  In September, HP hired formed SAP CEO Leo Apotheker to run the company. And in February, HP announced the TouchPad and its plans for webOS products at a splashy event in San Francisco.

At the time, HP Personal Systems Group executives, including Executive Vice president Todd Bradley, made it clear that the real goal of the Palm acquisition was to give HP control over its own destiny. Owning on operating system that would provide HP with Apple-like control over both hardware and software. They even announced a version of webOS for PCs, though they never provided more than the vaguest of details. But they said, they knew it would be a long fight, years not months, and they were ready for it.

At first Apotheker, whose background is all in enterprise software, seemed to be fully behind the plan, but I suspect his heart was never really in it–or any other parts of the Personal Systems Group that HP is now looking to sell or spin out. By the time the TouchPad actually launched the TouchPad in July, the company seemed to have lost most of its enthusiasm for the product. It had failed to do the one thing that might have given it a shot at success, line up a rich array of apps, perhaps because the company wouldn’t provide the funding needed to buy developer support. Given the lack of conviction, the fact that it lasted less than two months on the market is shocking but not surprising.

I don’t know that HP could really have challenged Apple–someone recently called the company “the place good products go to die.” But it was an exciting idea and for HP, webOS products offered it a chance to break out of the no-margin commodity PC game. But sadly, HP’s senior management never gave the idea a chance.




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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.

3 thoughts on “webOS: Forget About Licensing, the Game’s Over”

  1. looking at what htc and others are investing in building rich software experience on top of android, and now with google being a competitor,not counting the multitudes of lawsuits on android, I think webOS is worthy of licensing for htc samsung etc. It is a natural fit from a linux core perspective, so existing hardware can be reprofiled quickly.

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