WebOS Swings Along the Open Road

When HP announced late last year that it would open source webOS, it was hard not to be skeptical. After all, it would be all too easy for a company to whitewash its own abandonment of a project by grandly “donating it to the community.”

However, that pessimistic view is beginning to fade, thanks to HP’s publication last month of an official road map for its webOS plans, including the inclusion of a mainline kernel by March and ongoing involvement from HP itself.

Are webOS’s prospects looking a little brighter now? That’s what Linux bloggers have been trying to figure out.

‘Too Little, Too Late!’

“I’m excited about the possibilities inherent in making WebOS open!” enthused BenDespain in the comments on PCWorld, for example.

Then again: “Too little, too late!” countered cfnordstrom. “HP has already ceded to the competition who now have an almost 3-year head start.

“Why do we need another O/S ecosystem let alone another mobile platform?” cfnordstrom wondered.

Down at the Linux blogosphere’s Punchy Penguin Saloon, opinions were similarly divided.

‘I’m Truly Excited’

“As someone who is working to port a Linux-based operating system to the HP Touchpad, I can say I’m truly excited that HP appears to be open sourcing their work,” offered Thoughts on Technology blogger and Bodhi Linux lead developer Jeff Hoogland.

Hoogland was particularly excited by the explicit mention on HP’s timeline of a “Linux standard kernel” and “Graphics extensions EGL.”

“These two things will hopefully give myself and the dev community enough to get fully functional alternative Linux operating systems running smoothly on the Touchpad,” he said.

‘The Way of the Future’

Similarly, “this is a good start,” opined Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project. “It will be interesting to see where this goes.”

Travers would like to see a far more community-oriented competitor to products like Android.

“In the end, I think that community-oriented software is the way of the future, and that it will eventually surpass all software which is not community developed,” he explained.

Particularly interesting in the case of webOS, though, “is that HP is not just making this open source, but talking about a community governance model, as well as using a very permissive license,” he pointed out. “This suggests that they are taking seriously the demands of openness and community and coming up with a reasonable strategy to keep webOS competitive.”

‘Too Good a Thing to Lose’

WebOS was “a beautiful thing when HP demonstrated it — HP just failed to get the world excited about it with a thorough advertising campaign and particularly getting ISVs and developers interested,” opined blogger Robert Pogson.

“I hope that freeing the source code will have the desired effect,” he added. “WebOS is too good a thing to lose.”

Indeed, at the very least, “this is a good move since someone can go through the code for useful items so the whole project doesn’t end up being a waste,” agreed consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack.

‘Choice Is Needed’

“Android/Linux is great for some things, but choice is needed even in FLOSS,” Pogson asserted. “WebOS, along with MeeGo and Android, will give a really good variety of choices for OEMs, retailers and consumers.”

Marketing is now the biggest challenge, Pogson concluded.

“If they were going to open the source code eventually, they should have done it from the beginning,” he said. “Hidden code does not grow well, just like plants with too much shade.”

‘I Will Throw My Hat in with Tizen’

Roberto Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor, wasn’t convinced, however.

“Do we really need an Open Source webOS?” Lim asked. “It looks like the final refuge of a dying operating system, or in this case, a stillborn one.

“If I was interested in a truly open source OS, I think I will throw my hat in with Tizen,” Lim added.

‘It’s Hard to Get Excited’

Similarly, “it’s hard to get excited about HP releasing Enyo 2, which should probably be called ‘Yet Another Javascript Framework,'” agreed Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site.

“It certainly won’t bootstrap interest in webOS — after all, if Enyo 2 runs on other platforms, who needs webOS, and to the extent that it doesn’t, who’s going to bother with either of them?” she asked.

It boils down to “the same chicken-and-egg problem Linux has with native applications and Wine: Until Wine can run Windows applications seamlessly, most people won’t consider replacing Windows with Linux, but if Wine ever gets to the point where it can run Windows applications seamlessly, who’s going to bother with Linux ports?” Hudson observed.

‘They’re Struggling for Air’

HP isn’t alone in its situation, however.

“RIM has the same story arc with Blackberry 10,” Hudson pointed out. “Ditto for Microsoft and Windows Phone 7. They’re all just struggling for air, trying but failing to retain a modicum of their former respect. Whatever money Apple iOS leaves on the table, Android comes along and hoovers it up.”

It’s also not clear “what Enyo 2 does that Adobe’s open-source Flex doesn’t already do” Hudson suggested.

“Not much, and with Flex you’re not starting from scratch — there’s already a developer community, and Adobe will happily sell you a commercial developer’s toolkit,” she pointed out.

‘Stick a Fork in It’

Last but not least, Slashdot blogger hairyfeet echoed many of the same sentiments.

“It’s dead, Jim,” hairyfeet opined. “Stick a fork in it — it’s well past done. You simply can’t wave a magical FOSS wand at a cell phone OS, because it’s the exact opposite of x86.”

Whereas the x86 world relies on a relatively small set of standard parts, in the mobile world “each device is completely different,” he pointed out. “There is NO standard or reference design, everybody is different, and even two devices from the same OEM can be as different as night and day.”

So, webOS “will be another dead project on SourceForge,” hairyfeet predicted. “Without a handset manufacturer to support it with hardware, it’s worthless — and why should any ODM spend their own money on webOS when Google is spending a billion plus a year on Android development and dumping it on the market for free?”

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.

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