Open Source for WebOS

HP announced that it will make WebOS an open-source project, and expects to make new hardware to support it sometime in 2013. What hasn’t been determined is what licence they will use, and that determines how “open” it will really be. Ideally, it would be either a GPL-type licence or a BSD/MIT-type licence, allowing some degree of latitude for developers. It could, though, end up with more a more restrictive “shared source” licence like Microsoft’s typical approach. What I don’t expect is that it will be like Android’s “open” licence, in that some releases are only available to select licensees prior to general availability (much like new major releases are only available to a particular handset maker until the device is released), given that HP is likely to be the sole hardware manufacturer for the short-term.

Is this a good idea? Sure it is. Let’s face it: the Palm assets aren’t worth all that much, and there aren’t an enormous number of buyers for yet another mobile operating system. Consider, too, that RIM may come up for sale, and any players looking to get into the mobile market may be holding their breath to see when RIM and the Blackberry assets become available. I would expect the thinking is that a company with more than zero market share is more tempting than one with none.

An open source future for WebOS may give it an outside chance at a long-term future, and a potential seat at the mobile table. For now, the world has consolidated around Android and iOS, and going up against them is going to be very, very hard for the next couple of years. But, the longer-term is still uncertain, and there is no guarantee that the mobile space is going to shape up like the PC space. The success of Linux in the server room may act as a motivator here: it came out of nowhere a decade ago, and now can claim 20-25% of the overall server market, and as much at 60% of the space for servers facing the public (web servers, DNS servers, mail servers). But, there is a cautionary tale here: Linux has made virtually zero impact in terms of desktop share, primarily because it lacks one key ingredient, Microsoft Office, which would allow it to play in the PC space. A similar challenge faces WebOS: without a viable ecosystem, any technological or cost superiority (real or perceived) is moot.

To succeed, WebOS would need to find a way to not only build a rich ecosystem, but provide some means for people to switch for minimal or no cost. Smartphone and tablet users, particularly iOS users, are investing a lot of money in their apps and content. Leaving iOS means abandoning some or all of that investment. It may not be necessary to give all of the replacement content for free, but offering discounts (like some way to repurchase the WebOS version of an app for really, really cheap) might make it easier for people to switch over. What we probably won’t see is the “I have to upgrade, so why not buy something new” that is likely helping MacOS. Unlike on the desktop, upgrades to apps are generally free (there are exceptions, but those are pretty rare). For a PC users, if they have to buy an upgrade to Office, or they want to buy new games that are available on both Windows and MacOS, moving to the Mac isn’t as big a deal, cost-wise, because they have to spend the money anyways (buy/upgrade software for their current PC, which needs replacing anyways, or buy a new Mac along with the replacement software). Buying what amounts to a perpetual, lifetime upgrade takes away that opportunity for change.

The other question mark is the tablet space. It is only about 2 years old (ignore the Windows Tablets, they didn’t sell enough to even mention), and while the iPad is still far ahead in terms of sales and marketshare, the landscape is still in flux. The recent arrival of the Kindle Fire may have an impact, and in the short term I fully expect it will. What will remain to be seen is if the Fire’s initial enthusiasm has momentum, and if the Fire is a device that people buy exclusively, or if it is one they buy to augment their iPad. There are a lot of iPad owners with regular Kindle eReaders, so it may shape up that there are lot of people who buy the Fire alongside, rather than instead of, an iPad. The key for any new tablet is, again, ecosystem: apps and content. Either that, or really, really cheap (witness the success of the TouchPad fire sale).

In the end, though, HP has nothing to lose and more to gain by making WebOS open source. It may be enough to encourage developers to experiment and build apps for the platform. There may be handset makers out there that want some freedom from Google and Android (from what I’ve heard, it isn’t all roses and sunshine for the handset manufacturers), but don’t want to build their own platform. An open source WebOS is a long-shot, in terms of success, it has a non-zero (but very small) chance. Shutting it down and writing it off would have reduced that chance to zero.