Palm. HP. Who owns WebOS next?

Summary:With HP's discontinuation of the TouchPad, Veer, Pixi and Pre, who is the next likely suitor for the WebOS?

So I predict that the HP TouchPad will fail to sell... oh wait a minute. I did that already.

Sigh.

Look, I didn't kill the TouchPad! It's... not... my... fault! I know I said some very bad things, like... that HP was incompetent... and their engineering efforts were awful... But I didn't really mean it, okay? HP, will you bring the TouchPad back now? I'm sorry!!!! I'M SORRY!!!!!!!! Aggggggghhhhhhhhh!!!!

'Fer crying out loud, you don't spend $1.2 Billion on a mobile hardware and software company, enter an extremely competitive market, and not expect to crack a few eggs with your first product.

And if Apotheker felt that HP didn't need to commit to at least five years to establish a leading brand then... well... hell, maybe the company really is wacked.

So the TouchPad, the Pre, the Pixi and the Veer is dead. Let's get over it. Let's move on.

The question then remains: what happens to WebOS?

Well, my Editor-in-Chief, Larry Dignan has effectively outlined the "what" and the "how" in the equation.

What remains is the "who".

I kind of feel like I've written this story before. Why... I wrote something almost exactly like this. Yesterday.

In fact I wrote something almost exactly like that one, but on Monday.

It's failed mobile technology Groundhog Day!!!! Rise and shine campers, and don't forget to put your booties on because its COOOOOOLLLLLLD OUTSIDE!

Sorry. I fully realize it's the end of August.  I'm just having my regular end of week nervous breakdown.

Sooooo... companies different. But similar issues. Let's go down the list of possibilities.

Option 1: HP Licenses the technology

Well, with HP canning the TouchPad, Pre and Veer this certainly makes my argument for partnering with a company like Amazon a lot more relevant than it was on Monday.

HP now has a homeless App Store for WebOS apps with effectively no devices to run them on, as it will cease development on TouchPad, Pre and Veer. Sure, there are maybe several hundred thousand or as much as a million or two WebOS devices in circulation, but total active WebOS devices? Not a lot.

The remaining 200,000-300,000 TouchPads in channel circulation are being liquidated. While this would seem to increase the size of the WebOS ecosystem significantly, until some definitive statements are to be made about who is going to run that App Store, or if the software is going to be licensed at all, WebOS 3rd-party development is almost certainly going to come to a screeching halt.

Licensing the technology of course would involve keeping the legacy Palm infrastructure alive as far as facilities and employees in order to continue to develop the OS. But now that the company has announced its intention to sell of their PC business, the likelihood of WebOS being used in other HP consumer products is probably nil.

I mean, they could put it in multifunction printer devices, but with no HP PCs to integrate it with, I'm not sure that still makes sense to have the "Palm" infrastructure and employees to continue to do work on an OS with no future at the company.

Would HP really keep Palm and WebOS around to license and produce no actual hardware just to run an App Store? That sounds like... so Google-ey. Or Microsoftish. You know, just like the old Google, before Monday. Before Googarola. Before the Empire...

So, licensing. It's not out of the question. But now that this has become an absolute disaster for the company, the idea is a lot less sexy than it used to be, because it now looks like HP can't do anything right, let alone start a software licensing business for WebOS. WebSource! Wait, that sounds kind of familiar too.

Option 2: HP sells off WebOS and the Palm division

While HP might initially try to make a mobile software licensing business out of WebOS, a la PalmSource or Android or even Windows Mobile, I'm going to put a stick in the ground here and say that Leo Apotheker really wants to wipe his hands of this meshuggener thing that Mark Hurd came up with and sell off the whole megilla.

So who are our prime candidates here? Well, you've got Research in Motion. Yeah, you heard me right.

Look, the QNX thing just ain't working for RIM. The PlayBook OS is a difficult platform to develop for. It's missing key functionality, such as integrated email and calendaring and personal information managment. And it has almost no apps to speak of.

WebOS, on the other hand, is much easier to develop for. It has a ton of integrated functionality already. And WebOS does have apps. Sure, we're not talking iOS or Android level in the hundreds of thousands, but it has a few thousand decent apps.

Could you imagine RIM's hardware quality and engineering paired with WebOS on a BlackBerry? It would be awesome.

Still, I don't think a purchase of the WebOS assets by RIM can save the company at this juncture. It's unlikely with the current management structure that they would switch horses on operating systems, even if they ported Luna to the QNX kernel making WebOS a full RTOS.

Maybe if RIM did it a year or two ago, before HP jumped in to the fray. But not now.

The best choice in my opinion is actually Amazon. Why? Because the company wants to get into the tablet and color e-reader business. And in light of the Motorola Mobility purchase, I think the likelihood of being able to stand out in the Android space is probably a lot riskier now than it was before.

And unlike HP, I actually think Amazon could make a go of WebOS, if it reserved it for its own products and curated an Appstore for the OS.

It is also worth mentioning that Jonathan "Ruby" Rubinstein, former CEO of Palm and SVP of HP's mobile division/personal systems group that is being shuttered currently sits on the board of directors of Amazon.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if back-channel communication between HP and Amazon was already occurring to discuss licensing or outright purchase of the Palm assets.

The next two candidates are obvious, Samsung and HTC. Both of which could definitely go for having the intellectual property and patents of Palm to make their own branded phones with.

However, in my experience with most Asian companies and how they work with developer communities, I think that they'd completely fail at such efforts to run the WebOS App Store and generate interest in developing software. But they could buy WebOS and Palm just for the patent portfolio and scrap everything.

That would be horrible.

Final Candidate? Oracle. WebOS supports Java technologies and if Larry Ellison really wants to make a go at Google, I could see him doing it. For spite. And because his buddy came up with the whole wacky idea of buying Palm at HP in the first place.

Why wouldn't he want it? Like, he could use it as the operating system to power his Iron Man suit. Or use the patents to sue more people.

"O-Phones". Sure. Could happen.

Option 3: Open Source Tax Writeoff and Palm Physical Asset Divestiture

This option actually falls under the "Perlow, are you out of your freaking mind" category, but bear with me for a second.

Assuming HP does sell WebOS, it's going to take it at a loss. HP purchased Palm for $1.2 billion. It's not going to get $1.2 billion for the Palm/WebOS division. It's lucky to get half that amount of money.

What if... HP donated WebOS to say, The Apache Foundation? As a Tax Write-off?

I'm sure HP's legion of accountants and bean counters could come up with some creative accounting and valuation for the intellectual property elements of WebOS -- the source code, the patents, the development hosting and build environments, et cetera.

Perhaps value that as a billion dollar plus gift to the Open Source Community, so that there would be a full-blown community-supported smartphone and tablet OS to compete with Android. The good will that HP would generate would be unfathomable.

As to the actual Sunnyvale, CA Palm campus and the employees that work in the mobile products division, well, you obviously can't donate those. You'd have to find them new jobs within HP and re-purpose that campus, or those real estate assets would have to be either divested or leased out.

I guarantee you that between the write-off and selling the actual physical assets, the company might be able to do better in terms of recouping its losses than in an all-out asset sale to a competitor.

The employees in this scenario would almost certainly be let go if HP couldn't find other employment for them within the company. But hey, HP, if you Open Source all of WebOS, it's possible that folks like Ruby and his team might decide to take the Open Source version of that and go do something creative with it.

Maybe under this scenario, the spirit of Palm might not actually die.

Should Hewlett-Packard license WebOS, Sell off the IP and the assets, or Open Source it as a charitable donation? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

[poll id="26"]

Topics: Operating Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Mobile OS, Mobility, Smartphones, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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