Can HP make developers care about WebOS?

The mobile operating system was well-regarded when it debuted, but slow updates and other problems turned off app makers. HP has a big challenge ahead as it tries to woo them back.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
5 min read
HP has its work cut out for itself when it comes to getting app makers excited about the new version of WebOS set to arrive this summer.
HP has its work cut out for itself when it comes to getting app makers excited about the new version of WebOS set to arrive this summer. James Martin/CNET

When Hewlett-Packard bought Palm for $1.2 billion last year, executives at the computing giant said Palm's well-regarded WebOS mobile operating system would play a key role in their company's future.

As is often the case when corporate acquisitions are announced, HP's plans for Palm were long on vision and short on details. Executives recently gave the broad outlines of a planto eventually place WebOS on every PC that HP ships, in addition to phones, tablets, and printers. Sounds interesting enough, and when exactly that will happen is still anyone's guess. But if HP doesn't get plenty of third-party developers to work with WebOS, to make it into something as useful as any other operating system, those grand plans won't get very far.

Now comes the hard part: getting developers--and maybe even people in HP's many business units--to believe they should care about WebOS.

"The platform sort of stagnated" while Palm was independent, recalled Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, the Web-based and mobile note-taking app. "From a raw numbers perspective, it became difficult to justify ongoing development on WebOS since we had several hundred times more users on our iOS app. We didn't make any new features for nine months."

That sentiment can be the kiss of death from a developer, and it's something HP is trying to fix. The company recently hired Richard Kerris, former developer relations executive at Apple, and most recently CTO of Lucasfilm, to be its new VP of worldwide developer relations. Kerris says they're starting over with developers and the key will be to be consistent and be available to them for training and help. That means showing up at WebOS meet-ups not sponsored by HP, giving some developers an early chance to work on the tablet version of the OS, and reaching out to engineering programs at universities.

"It starts with having a consistent set of tools, development tools with great documentation, and making training available," he said in an interview with CNET. "To be honest, we haven't always done that. We've had some hiccups."

Kerris has taken an admirably humble approach to the problems he inherited with his new job, but "hiccups" might be putting it mildly. Palm's WebOS, Windows Phone 7, and Research In Motion's BlackBerry are now competing for a lot of developers' attention when they're not making games or apps for iOS or Android. A survey of more than 2,200 mobile developers in mid-January by IDC and Appcelerator found that just 13 percent described themselves as "very interested" in developing for a WebOS smartphone, and 16 percent as "very interested" in making apps for a WebOS tablet.

That's far behind those "very interested" in making iOS apps (92 percent), Android phone (87 percent), BlackBerry smartphone (38 percent), and Windows Phone 7 (36 percent). While Palm is adding to its developer ranks--it says 3,000 signed up right after a February 9 event--the buzz is in no way comparable to an iPad release or even the introduction of the Motorola Xoom, the first Android 3.0 tablet.

David Matiskella sells apps on the Android Marketplace, Apple's App Store, as well as the HP's WebOS store. He complained that despite "the best user interface of any of the phones," the promise of the platform when WebOS debuted was never met. "The hardware they did not do quite as well, it had some issues when it came out," he said. But even more importantly, "they haven't updated the OS."

Rebuilding trust
That's a lot of ground and trust to regain, even for a company with as much cash and resources as HP, and they know it. As Kerris put it: "We're being realistic about things."

"It's a long road ahead," he said. "I don't think it's practical to think we're going to come out of the gate and have tons and tons of applications" when WebOS 3 makes its expected debut this summer on the TouchPad tablet. The new features take advantage of the tablet's significantly larger screen real estate: a virtual keyboard with a numbers strip across the top that can be selected to appear in sizes small, medium, and large; a drop-down menu for notifications; multi-pane e-mail viewer, with the ability to select multiple e-mails at once; video calling; and a built-in store to purchase videos.

"The numbers game is not one we care to play. People don't use more than a couple dozen [apps] at most. So we want the ones we do have to be really functional."
-- Richard Kerris, VP of worldwide developer relations, HP

Besides third-party apps, HP is looking to other ways to stand out with the upcoming version of WebOS. HP Synergy allows syncing of text messages, e-mails, and calendars between WebOS devices. The company also has high hopes for its Touch to Share technology, which allows a WebOS smartphone to be touched to the HP TouchPad and do things like share a URL. They're also going to open up the application programming interface for its Touchstone wireless charging station, which can also function as a way to transfer small amounts of data wirelessly between the dock and the phone placed on it. The hope is that developers will think of new ways to use this functionality and create applications around it.

Again, HP's plan is dependent on developers' excitement. And the company acknowledges it will be awhile before there's any renewed traction for the platform. Palm is planning to embrace small for now and insists it's not spending much time worrying about competing with Apple. That said, WebOS has plenty of popular, mainstream apps from recognizable brands: Amazon, Yelp, Bank of America, NFL, and more. But it needs to get its high-profile developer partners excited about the platform again--and get them to update their apps. Updates add features or improve functionality, and keep users coming back to those applications.

Evernote, for example, was on the WebOS marketplace on the first day it opened for business in 2009. Yet Evernote developers' interest in improving its WebOS apps waned as Palm failed to make periodic software updates and push the development of WebOS forward.

And then there's the guys no one has heard of--yet. Johann Kovacs, a university student in Dusseldorf, Germany, and part-time WebOS developer, has created eight games that have been downloaded over 1.5 million times from the WebOS App Catalog. He saw his downloads drop off a bit from the height of 2009, but says he hopes that HP's backing will put WebOS on more devices and get them into more markets outside North America. His biggest complaint--like other developers interviewed by CNET--is the plodding rate of software updates. Most WebOS phones run still run WebOS 1.4.5 or earlier. The Pre 2 released last fall has WebOS 2, but that has not yet been made available via an over-the-air update to older model phones.

Will there be as many developers working on WebOS as iOS or Android anytime soon? Unlikely. So HP is picking its targets, trying to find third-party developers working on apps with the broadest reach. "The numbers game is not one we care to play," Kerris said. "People don't use more than a couple dozen [apps] at most. So we want the ones we do have to be really functional."