Can WebOS Rise Above Clouds of Skepticism?

HP’s decision to open source its webOS mobile operating system may have met with some early cheers last week from observers glad to see the company’s indecision come to an end, but since then much of that relief has been increasingly tempered by sentiments of a darker kind.

“WebOS is doomed to fail” read one headline on Friday afternoon, for example.

“Open Sourcing The Platform Is The Death Of WebOS” agreed another over the weekend.

“Open-source webOS is dead on arrival” was one view expressed on Monday, followed soon afterward by “Open Source WebOS: A Win For Windows Phone?”

Much as many are relieved the technology won’t be left to languish any longer, in other words, there’s also considerable skepticism about the ultimate consequences of the move — even among open source fans.

‘The Burden of Proof Is on HP’

“By and large, the open source community has reacted with skepticism to the open-sourcing of webOS,” RedMonk analyst Donnie Berkholz told LinuxInsider.

“We’ve seen the same thing happen before with Symbian, and it was a disaster, so the burden of proof is on HP to show that it’s serious about this move,” Berkholz explained.

From an open source perspective, the big question for webOS now “is whether HP’s going to throw the code over the wall or work to build a community around it,” he added.

“If it’s the latter, then webOS stands a chance at a second life, whether it’s within or outside of HP,” Berkholz asserted. “If it’s the former, the best legacy I could imagine is that portions of the code get reused elsewhere, instead of rotting as it would if it had stayed proprietary.”

‘A Big Question Mark’

Indeed, “I have a pretty mixed reaction,” agreed Jay Lyman, a senior analyst with 451 Research.

There are several downsides to the move, Lyman told LinuxInsider. First is that “similar to Symbian, which was open sourced and then later reverted, webOS is facing a big question mark in terms of both developer and consumer interest.”

That’s where “most of the negative reaction to this comes from,” he pointed out, and “HP didn’t help by being unclear about its fate.”

At least as significant, though, is the “really intense competition” webOS will face from Apple and Android, Lyman added.

‘HP Knows About Linux’

On the upside, however, is that “unlike Symbian, webOS is based on Linux, so I think that may make open sourcing it easier than was the case for Symbian,” Lyman said.

Also, “HP knows about supporting and certifying for Linux,” he pointed out. “They didn’t prove a whole lot of that with their indecision and communication about webOS, but HP is nevertheless a pretty big Linux supporter. That may help them.”

Then, too, there’s the fact that “before Android, every time someone talked about mobile Linux, everyone’s eyes went into the back of their heads and they thought, ‘here we go again,'” Lyman said. “There would be some excitement and developer interest, but it never really seemed to happen.”

‘That Counts for Something’

Android, of course, proved to be a different beast altogether, and it “paved a path in some way,” Lyman said. “It proved that mobile Linux can work. So in that sense, it helps webOS.”

There has even been a webOS product in the modern smartphone market — the Palm Pre — and “that counts for something,” he added. “It shows there can be a device out there that is compelling to consumers.”

In short, “the skepticism is understandable, but I do think there are some circumstances that give it hope,” Lyman opined.

‘It Can Move Forward’

Looking at the alternatives, then, “this is better for the software project and the odds of it living on,” Lyman said. “It’s better than selling it or reserving it as an intellectual property asset.”

WebOS is “certainly facing an uphill battle,” he acknowledged, and it might have ended up “yet another weapon in the patent wars.”

However, “at least now that it’s open source, it can move forward in a number of different ways,” he concluded.

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