So, after months of speculation, HP finally announced its plans for webOS, which will see the Palm-developed platform released into the wilds of open source.
After reports of talks with all manner of possible buyers, including cash-rich companies such as Intel and Qualcomm, it was either a case that HP was asking too much for webOS, or the platform had less appeal to potential buyers than anticipated – or most likely, a combination of both.
While HP has unsurprisingly talked-up the benefits of open source, it is worth noting that in the mobile space, there is little evidence that this generates success.
A move into open source for Symbian OS failed to reinvigorate interest in the platform, and the path to do this was paved with hurdles. While engineers and lawyers examined the code base to ensure that Symbian OS was free from intellectual property owned by third parties, Android was able to build up the traction that would eventually see it overtaking Symbian OS as the mass market operating system of choice.
Likewise, despite backing from Intel and Nokia, the open source MeeGo platform fell by the wayside, after Nokia made the decision that it was not the right platform to power its fightback against Apple and Samsung. While MeeGo’s proponents would undoubtedly argue that momentum for the platform remained strong, it has since evolved into the Tizen project which, like webOS, will now fight to pick up support.
Some observers will point to the fact that Android is open source as a defence. But the way that this platform has been developed, in a Google-led environment with the code released on completion, is very much closed. Indeed, the Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) platform never saw an open source release, because it did not suit Google to do so.
So far, HP is making the right noises about continuing support for webOS. On its developer website, it said that it is “in it for the long haul,” and there have been reports of unspecified hardware releases in 2013. But unlike when Symbian OS was taken to open source, or in the ongoing Tizen/MeeGo efforts, HP has not announced any third parties who are also on-board to work with webOS in any capacity – which means, as before, it is a platform with an at best uncertain future.
What iOS and Android have shown is that for a platform to succeed, it needs an ecosystem. It needs developers creating new and innovative apps. It needs consumers to buy devices, software and services. And it needs support from vendors, to ensure that customers can get their hands on appealing hardware in the first place.
Currently, webOS does not have a committed device vendor. Because of this, customers cannot buy devices. Because of this, there is little appeal to developers – a recent survey from Appcelerator and IDC has shown a drop-off of interest in the OS, from already lukewarm levels. And there is little sign of any impetus from any of these camps to drive webOS forward.
In many ways, webOS has a lot going for it. Primarily that, unlike Android and the guiding hand of Google, or Windows Phone and Microsoft, or iOS and Apple, it is free of a dominating stakeholder with its own vested interest in the direction and success of the platform.
But what has made iOS and Android a success, and which makes Windows Phone look a reasonable bet for the future, is that the “owner” has been able to drive momentum in the platform, however they look to gain from it commercially.
So far, there is little evidence that HP has the appetite to play Google to webOS’ Android, and with no firm plans to get hardware into the hands of the customers, it is not taking on Apple’s role either. The question that remains is whether HP’s altruism is genuine and it will continue to support webOS in future, or whether the platform has actually been abandoned to fight for itself.
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