Sorry, WebOS is doomed to fail

The operating system is slick and has a lot of fans, but at this point it's too little, too late. The open-source route isn't going to bring WebOS back to life.

commentary Hewlett-Packard may think it's resuscitating WebOS by turning it into an open-source platform, but the truth is the plug was pulled a long time ago.

HP WebOS
So long, WebOS. We hardly knew you. James Martin/CNET

In a case of too little, too late, HP said it felt the open-source route was the best one for WebOS. The company is gambling that the operating system will take off on its own.

It's a bad bet. Past open-source platforms have had a mixed record of success. And people who had any interest in WebOS, whether consumers or developers, have been jerked around enough by the companies that have mismanaged the platform, from HP going back to Palm. After being burned on multiple occasions, is there any reason for someone to come back to WebOS?

"I don't see what good that does at the end of the day," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research.

Make no mistake, while WebOS remains a part of HP, it will be a much smaller part. Look for HP to significantly reduce the resources it devotes to WebOS, if it devotes any at all. That's not exactly the panacea for WebOS's core problem: the lack of consumer and developer interest. If HP doesn't care enough to support WebOS properly, why should anyone else?

That HP is moving to open source rather than selling the platform speaks to lack of demand for the platform.

"They've obviously demonstrated there's no commercial value for WebOS," Lopez said.

For HP's part, Sam Greenblatt, chief technology officer of the company's advanced technologies division, denies that it couldn't sell WebOS.

"We did this for broad market appeal, not the inability to sell it," he told CNET.

HP CEO Meg Whitman told the Verge that HP would continue to use WebOS in its products, but was coy with the details. She also wouldn't commit to using the software next year, which could mean no WebOS HP products until 2013, if any at all. She also left the door open to another WebOS-powered tablet, although the last TouchPad was a complete failure.

Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics, was even more direct about HP's decision.

"That's a nice way of saying, 'We don't care anymore'," Entner said.

Of course, WebOS may find new life as a niche operating system for other devices. Over the past few years it had won over a number of tech enthusiasts, reporters, and even a few developers. An intrepid developer may find a new use for the operating system, maybe to power a refrigerator or smart grid.

But analysts say even that's highly unlikely.

HP probably thinks so too. The company did write off $3.3 billion to cover exiting the WebOS business, which is probably the best illustration of its thoughts on its value.

Releasing WebOS to the wilderness
HP is likely looking to buy a little goodwill by turning WebOS into an open-source platform. Hopefully, the company isn't looking for any revenue or profits. A look at other such platforms brings a mixed picture, with limited success.

The most successful examples of open-source projects, including Oracle's Java, Mozilla's Firefox, and even Google's Android, all had deep-pocketed backers. HP likely won't provide that kind of support.

"I don't think HP wants to use WebOS as their piggy bank," Entner said.

Linux is the only truly independent platform, and it started off as an open-source project. While there's a strong user base supporting Linux, it remains limited relative to its competitors on the PC. Android, however, is based on Linux.

Likewise, all of the other platforms started off as open source.

WebOS, meanwhile, is getting dumped into the open, which many technology experts consider a last-ditch attempt at reviving the platform before it goes off to die.

Perhaps a more apt comparison is Nokia's Symbian, which started off as a proprietary operating system for Nokia before it was released as an independent open-source platform in a bid to attract more vendor support. Almost as quickly as it was opened up, Nokia closed it, and Symbian has been relegated to lower-end devices as the company focuses on Microsoft's Windows Phone.

Symbian couldn't compete with Apple's iOS and Android, and is destined to fade into obsolescence. WebOS, which never really had its time in the spotlight like Symbian, should share the same fate.

"It's a shame," Lopez said. "Sometimes good technology doesn't always win."

Updated at 12:19 p.m. PT: to include a comment from HP, info from a Verge interview, as well as additional background on Linux.

 

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