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Will WebOS Make HP Relevant Again?

Like Google, HP plans to give away its mobile OS.
December 9, 2011

Update: HP CEO Meg Whitman has told the Verge that her company will likely make WebOS tablets again, maybe not in 2012, though.

The world’s biggest computer manufacturer, HP, announced today that it would be making its mobile operating system, WebOS, open source, and free for any company to put on their devices

The question left unanswered is: will any company do that?

WebOS was created to run on a line of phones and tablets that were unceremoniously killed off by recently departed HP CEO Leo Apotheker. When erstwhile eBay boss Meg Whitman took over, she said the WebOS devices wouldn’t be coming back.

Today’s announcement suggests she thinks WebOS can succeed on its own. She’s quoted as saying it will “advance a new generation of applications and devices.”

It’s easy to see where that new generation of apps might come from. Since its first appearance, WebOS has been lauded by app developers who appreciated the way it is built on Web technologies. Coding an app for a WebOS gadget has similarities to creating a rich website, compared to the more specialized methods required to develop apps for Apple or Android devices.

It’s much less clear where the devices that WebOS needs to survive will come from. Every successful smart-phone manufacturer aside from Apple is closely aligned with Google and its own open source OS, Android. Nokia is heavily committed to Microsoft’s mobile version of Windows. RIM—purveyor of the BlackBerry—has its own OS and is increasingly irrelevant in the market for pocketable computers.

We don’t know the full details of the model HP will pursue. But the company’s statement says that:

HP plans to continue to be active in the development and support of WebOS.

It sounds like HP’s approach will be similar to Google’s for Android: an open source OS free for anyone to use, but with strong guidance and continued development from the originating company. The only notable difference is that HP says WebOS will be developed in the open, allowing outside collaboration. Google develops Android behind closed doors and periodically open-sources the results.

In fact, it is Google that may be doing more than anyone to make WebOS relevant. The search and ad giant’s pending purchase of Motorola’s handset business could help WebOS turn the heads of companies installing Android on their devices today. Google has claimed that owning one of the major device makers won’t skew the market against the others, but there’s a clear conflict of interest.

With so much invested in Android, though, it seems likely that handset manufacturers would need very good reasons to switch to HP’s offering.

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