WebOS: Is HP’s Neglected Acquistion on its Death Bed?

HP TouchPadHewlett-Packard announced that webOS, the mobile operating system that powered later generation Palm phones, was being open-sourced just a few months ago. A glimmer of hope for the neglected platform to some, but by that time most of the hardware team was already dismantled. Up until that point, webOS was in limbo, with rumor mills churning out stories of HP looking for a buyer. After the announcement, HP cautiously stated that it would restart the development of the hardware team and devote resources to help the open-source community shepherd webOS. However, some doubted whether such a partnership would be feasible given HP’s lack of open source experience.

Just weeks ago, my feed lit up with news that most of the webOS team’s management had left HP. Now another round of cuts has hit the engineering team. According to one source, Meg Whitman and her executives are making no effort to stop them. Given webOS’s complexity, without a team dedicated to handing over its reigns to the open source community, its future looks bleaker than it did just weeks ago.

Ahead of its Time

WebOS was quite possibly the only real contender to iOS in terms of feature set and integration. That is, until it was acquired by HP. When it was initially released, its sophisticated gesture interface, combined with a better multi-tasking and notification system, was ahead of its time. However, Apple had already established a smooth system of complementing software, hardware and content. It used that “ecosystem” to perch the iPhone OS on while it shored up the lack of advanced features webOS already had.

WebOS never could get the traction it needed to overcome the landslide that Apple and Google were unleashing. By the time HP released its TouchPad, the iPad was in its second generation. Unlike competitors Microsoft and Apple who try, try again, HP pulled the plug when it realized the device was too little, too late.

When HP saw the success of Android, it decided to try the open source gambit without understanding what it takes to nurture a community of developers. HP probably thought it was going to orchestrate development and conduct the symphony of developers. However, open source folks, love them or hate them, are notoriously independent and usually not driven by personal gain.

I once heard it said that leading a team of developers is like herding cats. Open source developers are probably more like every type of cat from manx to lion with a few mules, squirrels and jackrabbits thrown in to keep things interesting. (No disrespect to developers intended.) So herding that diverse group is all but impossible. Perhaps that’s what the management team of webOS realized. Or perhaps they didn’t agree with HP’s plans. Until they start talking, we can only speculate.

When I got a chance to use the first webOS phones and some prototypes, I was impressed by the UI’s sophistication. The multitasking and other architectural features I’m not qualified to comment on. I was told that despite the “fatal flaw” of Webkit and shortcuts taken that needed to be revamped, the design was something none of the other mOSes could touch. Despite all the brouhaha over Android and iOS, webOS is a hidden gem among mOSes. For those reasons, I hope webOS isn’t on its last breath.

Comments

  1. BY Mike says:

    HP does indeed seem to have difficulty choosing a path and following it to the end of the road. Sadly for one of my favorite OS they are the keepers of that kingdom as well.

  2. BY Pat Saison says:

    As this entrepreneur of waste tin metal for whom I was consulting said repeatedly, “one man’s garbage is another man’s gold”.

    If WebOS does indeed have such technical superiority, and was simply mishandled by the corporate folks, then some entity should try to buy it on the cheap, and go for broke with it.

    There are a lot of these opportunities around. Nothing wrong with product except bad corporate decisions or late of commitment.

    Unfortunately, not all can be resurrected. Take GM and SAAB for instance–nothing wrong with SAAB (or Opel) per se, except for the GM factor, yet SAAB will die off (Opel uncertain), while GM wants tie up with Peugeot PSA now.

    • BY M Noivad says:

      Yes, some problems with product failures is the disconnect between the audience a product should appeal to and the people in control of the product not understanding exactly what they have.
      Unfortunately, its technical edge was squandered, and the other mOSes have largely closed the gap.

  3. BY jsalg says:

    What happened to HP? A few years ago it was beating out Dell in the Home PC market. Well thank goodness CEO Meg Whitman didn’t become governor of California.

    • BY M Noivad says:

      Actually, Meg isn’t the one to blame for HP’s circumstances. That honor goes to Leo Apotheker, the former CEO of SAP. Please see Ars Technica’s excellent article on HP and Apotheker’s “contribution” to HP. Other articles on HP and their former CEO basically concluded that he wanted to turn HP into another SAP. Meg Whitman was brought in after joining HP’s board of directors to fix his mess. However, being from eBay—a different beast entirely—it is questionable if she understands HP any better than Leo did.

  4. BY jeremykohn says:

    RIM should buy WebOS and install it on new Blackberries and PlayBook tablets.

    Alternatively, RIM could create a new OS that replicates the WebOS interface.

    This would rescue both WebOS and Blackberry at once.

    • BY M Noivad says:

      If only it were that simple. webOS took years to create and was almost finished when Palm was acquired by HP. I was told (this is not confirmed, so consider it a rumor) that webOS required more horsepower than other other OSes because of some lower-level problem than the graphics subsystem. However RIM tends to put subpar processors in their phones from what I have read.

      RIM itself does not seem to know what it is doing either. If you recall last year an internal engineer wrote an open letter to RIM’s leadership pleading with them to, proverbially, steer the ship away from the rocks. This week, I read a report about RIM hiring iOS developers. The rumor is that it will be making a blackberry app for iOS.

      But HP is not down for the count in regards to mobile devices just yet. The grapevine is stirring with talk of an announcement regarding their mobile strategy this next quarter. What it is, I do not know, but hopefully it will mean the salvation of webOS.

      BTW: if you have not tried a webOS device and seen it in action, you really should do yourself a favor. It takes a fraction of a second to switch apps or close them, while in Android and iOS it takes multiple touches. (I counted and it takes 6 touches to close an iOS app. meanwhile a webOS user flicks the app up. {but let’s not go into why that’s backwards.})

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