HP open-sources WebOS, but will anyone develop for it?

It's great that HP has open-sourced webOS, but without HP's full backing can webOS be anything more than just another also-ran mobile operating system?

HP's webOS lives on as open source.

HP's webOS lives on as open source.

You know those HP TouchPads that are sale right now, the ones that didn't look that interesting after Amazon and Barnes & Noble released their Android-powered tablets? Well, you may want to get one anyway. WebOS, its operating system, isn't dead after all.

Today, HP announced that webOS would live on as an open-source project. In addition, Enyo, its application framework, is also being open-sourced.

That's the good news. The bad news is we're lacking a lot of details. Here's what we do know.

According to HP, the company will "continue to be active in the development and support of webOS. By combining the innovative webOS platform with the development power of the open source community, there is the opportunity to significantly improve applications and web services for the next generation of devices."

In a press statement, HP newly minted president and CEO, Meg Whitman, said, "WebOS is the only platform designed from the ground up to be mobile, cloud-connected and scalable. By contributing this innovation, HP unleashes the creativity of the open source community to advance a new generation of applications and devices."

HP also stated that it will engage the open source community to help define the charter of the open-source project under a set of operating principles:

  1. The goal of the project is to accelerate the open development of the webOS platform.
  2. HP will be an active participant and investor in the project.
  3. Good, transparent and inclusive governance to avoid fragmentation.
  4. Software will be provided as a pure open-source project.

That's nice, but it's all a little warm and fuzzy without any real concrete details. For example, we don't know what open-source license webOS and Enyo will be released under. Since webOS is built on Linux, the easiest path might be to use its license: the GPLv2. At the same time, I've already heard from developers who'd like to see it under the Apache license. Which will it be? We don't know. I suspect HP doesn't know either.

We also don't know how much support HP will provide for the open-source webOS. Clearly it will be giving some, but what does that mean to those who have been or were about to be laid off from HP's webOS division? Again, we don't know. I hope, both for their sake and for the operating system, that they're kept employed.

Even if HP does right by its webOS staffers and the open-source community, will developers want to work on it? After all between Android and iOS, most mobile developers already have their hands full.

In addition, as a mobile operating system, webOS needs support from hardware vendors. Will HP start building TouchPads again? You can't expect most end-users to buy into an operating system that requires them to root their existing smartphones and tablets. That model is fine for hackers; it doesn't work for ordinary users.

On the other hand, hardware OEMs would like to see a third contender in the mobile space. RIM's on the way out and Windows Phone has never picked up traction. WebOS could be the third choice that vendors would like to see to keep Apple and Google "honest" in their licensing deals.

Last, but not least, what will the organization be behind the open-source webOS? It sounds like it will be some sort of foundation. From what I'm told by my friends at existing open-source foundations, none of them have been approached to provide an umbrella organization for webOS. So, if HP creates its own sponsoring organization, will it be one directly under their control, the way Fedora is to Red Hat or more like the various independent projects that have ended up under the Apache Software Foundation roof over the years?

I asked Janel Garvin, CEO at Evans Data Corp., which covers the software development world, what she thought would happen with happen to webOS now "Unfortunately my guess is that contributing WebOS to the open-source community will have very little effect and will certainly not draw Android or iOS developers any time in the foreseeable future," said Garvin.

"Here's why: Except for Palm, it has no device to run on and so is still tied to the success of Palm - which only shows signs of decline among developers. It's possible that some manufacturer will pick it up but not likely. Consider the MeeGo platform, and before that Moblin and Maemo--all good open-source platforms, all backed by large players, and all unsuccessful in getting developers to adopt. There's no reason to think WebOS will be any different."

Garvin continued, "Further iOS is well established as a proprietary platform and will continue as a strong platform for consumers, but Android adoption has been on a raging tear, with many more developers currently targeting and planning to target in the future - way more than any other mobile platform. We've seen Android rapidly gain on iOS and then surpass it in every region of the world. Consistently developers tell us that Android has the best market potential of any platform and we see that juggernaut continuing its growth and dominating the mobile space for years to come."

So why did HP open-source it then? "Contributing WebOS to the community provides a more graceful exit for HP from the platform than simply letting it rot, but they would've been better off enhancing and maintaining it and licensing it to HTC, LG, or another device manufacturer (especially in the wake of Google buying Motorola)."

These are all serious concerns. And, we still have a lot of unanswered questions. Until we get these questions answered, we really don't know what webOS' fate will be. While I won't go quite as far as my ZDNet writing comrade James Kendrick who tweeted, "The future of webOS is as much in question now as before the HP announcement," we do agree that HP has a lot more questions to answer before we can know if this is just going to prolong webOS' death or see it revive into becoming an important alternative mobile operating system.

Related Stories:

HP: WebOS, Enyo app framework goes open source

HP open sources WebOS: The fallout

Why open-source WebOS has legs: because people fear Google

HP to make webOS open source; is it just prolonging the end?

HP: If you want folks to hack the TouchPad, then Open Source it.

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