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Editorial: What Does the Future Hold for WebOS?

Since HP announced yesterday that it would contribute WebOS to the open source community, there’s been a lot of uncertainty as to its future. Of course, it’s nice to have another open source platform, and yes, WebOS hasn’t been killed off, so that’s the good news; what this means for the platform, developers, and, ultimately, consumers, however, is another question altogether. Just making WebOS open source doesn’t necessarily stop it from fading into irrelevance.

First and foremost, this move is an easy way to stop losing money: a formal discontinuation would involve write-offs on earnings, which may cost more than simply letting a few people continue working on it, with the community taking care of the rest. In this case, it’s worrying that HP didn’t sell off its WebOS/Palm assets, which implies that it couldn’t find any buyers. But for now, let’s give HP the benefit of doubt and assume the open-sourcing was actually a conscious decision.

Despite little consumer success, WebOS has always had a very active homebrew community, which HP is obviously counting on for help in further development. According to a poll on PreCentral, most current WebOS users are quite happy with this news; after all, open source is the reason Android took off, right?

Wrong.

Android, at the time of its introduction, was clearly marketed as the anti-iPhone: to device vendors that wanted a finger-friendly alternative to Windows Mobile and Symbian, carriers looking to diversify their portfolio, and consumers who couldn’t afford or didn’t want an iPhone. Still, initial sales were lackluster; it was only with massive marketing campaigns for the original Motorola Droid and high-end devices like the HTC Desire that Android picked up steam in early 2010. With that, and lots of backing from Google, came the developers and apps, which finally established Android as a viable platform.

WebOS never had any of these. Palm alone didn’t have enough cash, and even HP had no chance against Google, HTC, Samsung, Motorola et al. Most importantly, the platform never attracted many developers, with only about 7.000 apps in its app catalog (compare that to over half a million for Android and 40.000 for Windows Phone).

So, we’re coming to the final pitfall that’s hindered WebOS in the past and will continue to hinder it even more in the future: hardware. At the time of its original launch in mid-2009, the Pre was a quite decent device, but two years later, HP simply wasn’t able to compete in the race to faster processors, bigger screens, and better design. Therefore, the big question is: How are people actually going to use WebOS in the future?

That is, on what devices?

While HP is considering to make WebOS tablets in 2013, they definitely won’t make any more smartphones. And there aren’t any obvious reasons why other hardware vendors should use WebOS instead of Android or Windows Phone, both of which have stronger developer support.

In the end, what’s left are current owners of WebOS devices, who, despite everything, can be happy with HP’s decision. Since the TouchPad firesale, even its most fervent supporters should have realized that WebOS is never going to become a mainstream success; instead, they – and all those deal hunters who made HP last quarter’s no. 2 tablet maker – can now look forward to the community messing around with the source code, fixing bugs and implementing new features.

But, hey, who knows. If everything goes well, WebOS would become much more open than Android. It’d be developed by the community, and not a single company. And, the WebOS division would be able to operate like a start-up, hopefully spurring even more innovation. It could be used in niche products that require custom operating systems, and whatnot. With its well-designed UI, it definitely has potential, and the open-sourcing could prove to be a new beginning. Even though that’s unlikely.

At least it’s not dead. Yet.

(A personal note: Of course I’d also like to see WebOS ported for my HTC HD2. That’d be amazing.)

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