WebOS: Destined to Fail, or Fuel for FLOSS’ Fire?

After such a tempestuous year as 2011 has been, it’s hard to imagine a more dramatic way for it to go out with a “bang” than with HP’s recent announcement about webOS.

Yes, for those who missed it, HP finally ended months of indecision by announcing that it plans to open-source the Linux-based mobile operating system, thereby giving it a chance at a new life in the hands of the community.

Linux software? Open source? Community control? Sounds like a good thing, right?

If only it were that clear.

Skepticism is rampantis rampant, and little else has been on Linux bloggers’ minds since the news arrived.

‘It Already Has Huge Publicity’

“This will fly,” enthused blogger Robert Pogson down at the blogosphere’s Mealy Apple Cafe.

“HP was foolish to drop it so quickly, but the world can make use of it,” Pogson added. “Because it’s GNU/Linux instead of Android/Linux, performance will be a bit better, so this could improve performance on some ARMed clients and be amazing on x86 clients.”

What separates webOS from many other distros is that “it already has huge publicity,” he pointed out. “That mindshare can be exploited by the FLOSS community, which lacks advertising budgets,” as well as by “OEMs who want to diversify out from under Wintel and even retailers who might do the Amazon thing and sell things at cost to consumers for some angle.

“Imagine a device that had a direct line to a retailer’s catalogs and inventories,” Pogson added. “Amazon is using that for distributing content — any retailer could do the same with webOS or Android/Linux.”

‘That’s the Way IT Should Be’

Even Canonical might find a way to incorporate some of webOS in its product, he suggested.

Either way, though, “webOS is more fuel on the fire of FLOSS, shedding heat and light to inspire even better products in FLOSS,” Pogson opined.

“Those who think it’s just more fragmentation do not understand how many people there are on the planet and how diverse they are — no product will please everyone,” he concluded. “The reason Wintel is sinking is just that. IT will become more diverse over time and multiple products will compete for mindshare; that’s the way IT should be.”

‘It May Be Very Useful’

Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, took a similarly optimistic view.

Though there are too many factors to make any real predictions, “one need only be reminded of Xamarin’s formation in response to Novell ditching Mono to note that communities can form around projects provided they fill important needs,” Travers pointed out.

HP’s move “has created an opportunity, and one important question is whether someone wants to come along and take up that opportunity,” he added. “I actually think it may be very useful, and am considering trying to go in this direction myself.”

‘A Non-Starter for Me’

It’s hard to say how useful webOS is at the moment, “but it might make a good replacement UI for kiosk-type functions,” consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack suggested.

“I don’t know that webOS has a chance, but if it were going to have one, Opening is how it would get it,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza told Linux Girl.

Still, “it’s hard to argue that it offers any compelling advantage, and indeed it offers some compelling disadvantages that make it a non-starter for me,” Espinoza added.

‘I Do Not Think WebOS Has a Chance’

Indeed, in many bloggers’ view, webOS’s chances of success are slim at best.

“I do not think webOS has a chance as a mobile operating system,” opined Roberto Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor. “Maybe it could be used as an OS for embedded systems.”

In order for a mobile operating system to survive, “it needs an app store, free cloud services and device manufacturers who are willing to build devices around it,” Lim explained. “With developers busy developing ARM apps for Android, iOS and Windows Phone, and within the year BlackBerry 10 and Windows 8, I do not think they would be too happy to have to build around another platform.”

Meanwhile, “who will build free cloud services around webOS? I cannot think of anyone,” Lim added.

‘Too Crowded a Market Already’

For manufacturers, “there really is no advantage to using webOS over Android, unless Android runs into serious patent issues,” he asserted. If that happens, however, “this would make manufacturers leery of webOS too, and you would see them flock to Microsoft.”

So, “for webOS to have a chance of success, Android has to die and Microsoft has to buy Nokia,” Lim opined.

“Going past the big four, you have Bada, Tizen and even Mozilla and Ubuntu,” he added. “With Microsoft having a hard time with Windows Phone and BlackBerry in danger of going into oblivion, what chance does webOS really have? Basically, it is too crowded a market already.”

‘Where Are You Gonna Run WebOS?’

Indeed, “it’s dead, Jim,” quipped Slashdot blogger hairyfeet. “The developers are long gone, the code is cold, what is the point?”

The problem is that “the users have exactly ZERO rights when it comes to mobile — the keys to the kingdom are owned by the networks, and what they say goes,” hairyfeet explained.

“Where are you gonna run webOS?” he asked. “The only things released were the Touchpad and the pre, and good luck finding either one of those.”

‘There Simply Isn’t the Access’

With X86 “you can install anything you want and it’ll go — BSD, *Nix, Solaris, heck there is even a bunch still selling OS/2 Warp if that suits you,” he noted. “But with most mobile devices there simply isn’t the access that there is with X86.”

That, in fact, is “one thing you can thank MSFT for,” hairyfeet added. “Even if that wasn’t what they had planned, if it weren’t for MSFT selling DOS to anybody with a buck, we wouldn’t have had the clones which made standard parts freely available and turned the PC into a commodity item.

“What we need in mobile is the same revolution, someone to come along with an OS that FORCES the OEMs to standardize,” he concluded.

‘An Air of Desperation’

In the meantime, “there’s a certain air of desperation surrounding HP nowadays … probably a reflection of the fear, uncertainty, and doubt about where the company is headed, from the CEO on down,” opined Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site.

“‘We sell computers! We bought PALM for webOS — it’ll be our tablet OS! It’ll be on every computer we sell. Buy our new tablet!'” Hudson quipped.

“‘Oops, we’re getting out of tablets! We’re also selling off our retail computer division. Oh wait — it’s Tuesday — time to change our minds again — we’re NOT selling our computer division,'” she went on. “‘We’re selling off webOS instead. Any takers? Anyone? No? Hey, great news, everybody — we’re going to open-source webOS!'”

An Anagram for ‘Wrecked That, Pal’

HP, in short, “is a case of life imitating art ,” Hudson asserted — “in this case, the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’:

‘Willard: They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound. Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?Willard: I don’t see any method at all, sir.'”

The motto for the new HP, Hudson suggested, “could be stolen from another movie: ‘Plan? We don’t need no stinking plan!'”

The company “must know that nobody is going to waste time developing for an OS that has no users — not when they can make money from iOS and Android,” she added.

The bottom line, then, is that “open-sourcing webOS is just a way for HP to try to save face rather than admitting outright that they blew over a billion dollars,” Hudson concluded. “It’s no longer just a coincidence that Hewlett-Packard is an anagram for ‘Wrecked that, pal.'”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter.


  • webOS is a descendent of PalmOS as much it’s a Linux derivative. Palm made mobile screen-interactive devices for a very long time. If the Palm intellectual property portfolio shields webOS, I don’t see it as being as vulnerable as Android.

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