HP finally took the covers off its plan for the webOS platform with the announcement it would offer it to the open source community. This news touched off a firestorm of analysis about what this might mean to the future of webOS as a mobile platform. While not enough details about how HP intends to give webOS up to the world have been given to judge what might happen, one little detail may be the gotcha that dooms the effort to failure.
Like my colleague Jason Perlow, I believe putting webOS into the open source community is a good thing, and gutsy of HP to do. The company has not been able to get anyone to license the platform, and offering it up to let others run with it is a good thing. A lot depends on the details of the open source arrangement that HP employs, as detailed by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, but lets hope for the best.
The saga of webOS and the TouchPad tablet is fodder for examination by business schools for years. HP seemed to do everything it could do to make sure the product was doomed to failure. However you feel about the tablet, there is little question the product was handled bizarrely by HP. That handling may eventually doom the open sourcing of webOS to failure.
Under question by the media after the open source announcement, HP's CEO Meg Whitman admitted that HP may eventually make other hardware using webOS. Specifically, HP may produce tablets running webOS in 2013. This news excited webOS enthusiasts, but it sent a big alarm to me as I think this will prevent any third-party open source effort from going anywhere.
To get an open source success for webOS, a big hardware maker needs to build tablet hardware using the newly released OS. This could be HTC, Samsung or other OEM wanting to build a product line safe from the ongoing legal exposure that using Android creates. Having a webOS tablet or two on the market is required to give the platform enough legs to keep the development ecosystem working on an otherwise dead platform.
The admission that HP will likely build its own tablet down the road is enough of a potential obstacle to prevent OEMs from taking on a big development cost to produce a webOS tablet. Why would an HTC or other company jump on a questionable platform, knowing that by the time they get a product to market that HP is going to jump in and compete directly with them? It's like HP wants to give OEMs the cake yet eat it before they get a chance.
I can't see any company worth its salt that should pick up the newly open sourced webOS and build products for the market, with HP sitting in the background ready to compete head-to-head with such efforts. I think this gotcha is a giant one, and will be enough to keep third parties from playing with webOS.