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Can HP’s webOS Rise from the Ashes?

Forget Android and iOS—a team of enthusiasts plans to bring HP’s much-admired webOS back from the scrap heap.
December 10, 2012

By day, Matthew Zakutny works as a project manager at a trenchless sewer repair company. By night, he’s leading a group of volunteers working to revive a software project that once looked set to challenge the market leaders in the rapidly growing smartphone market.

Phoenix rising?: A group of enthusiasts has developed a version of webOS that runs on the Nexus S smartphone.

Zakutny and his fellow volunteers are hatching a plan to rescue webOS, the mobile operating software initially developed by smartphone pioneer Palm and later offered by HP, by making the software compatible with the latest smartphone hardware.

Calling themselves Phoenix International Communications—a name that references the mythical bird that emerged from the ashes of its predecessor—the group aims to raise enough money to produce and sell a smartphone running an open-source version of webOS perhaps by late 2013.

First released in 2009 on the Palm Pre smartphone, webOS was praised for its intuitive user interface and multitasking tools, including a function that allowed users to see open apps as a stack of on-screen cards that could be closed with a flick or brought to the fore with a tap. Though favorably reviewed by critics, the software never made much headway with consumers, even after Hewlett-Packard purchased a dying Palm for $1.8 billion in 2010 and attempted to resuscitate its mobile products.

HP’s mobile-device business, which included webOS, was shut down in late 2011. However, this past September, HP released Open webOS—an open-source version of the software that anyone can use and modify.

Zakutny, who knows some Web design, along with two other fans of the operating system—Marc Edwards, who is well versed in Linux, and Daniel Giovannetti, who is working on the marketing side—decided to band together, hoping that as a group they could bring the software back to life on a new device.

Phoenix’s first step is getting webOS to work as an app on existing Android smartphones. (Another group called WebOS Ports is also porting the software to other devices, such as a Samsung Galaxy Nexus tablet.)

The Phoenix team has built an app that does run—albeit extremely slowly—on a Nexus S smartphone, and Zakutny says he expects a faster version of the app to be available through the Google Play store in about two months (though he won’t give specific details about how much of the original webOS functionality the app will provide). The group may offer it for free in the hope that it will get more people interested in webOS, he says.

The group’s real goal is to get a phone made that runs webOS natively, in place of Android or another OS. Zakutny says the group is considering using a smaller phone manufacturer in China, and over the next three years it hopes to roll out a low- to mid-range smartphone and then move on to higher-end smartphones if sales take off.

It’s a long shot. Phoenix, which is incorporated but run solely by volunteers, hasn’t even launched a planned Kickstarter campaign yet. (Zakutny says Phoenix hopes to set a target of $180,000 on the site, though the amount could change as the group works on its Kickstarter application.)

Even if the Phoenix team can get over the hurdles involved in bringing a smartphone to market on a tiny budget, there are hurdles they’ll have to surmount on the software side, too. Any new webOS-running device will need a fresh crop of apps. Phoenix hopes to sidestep this issue using OpenMobile, whose technology makes it possible for Android apps to work on non-Android devices. Like webOS, Open webOS incorporates Web programming standards, which is intended to make it easier for Web developers to build apps or port them over to the OS.

The group also wants its device to run an anticipated, but so far unannounced, version of Open webOS from HP known as Open webOS Professional Edition. This is expected to include some cloud-hosted features.

HP is still putting some effort into the open-source software and supporting attempts to bring it to new devices. The first version of Open webOS includes new browser and e-mail applications from HP, and in a statement the company says it is “working closely” with groups like Phoenix and WebOS Ports. HP doesn’t specifically refer to Open webOS Professional Edition but says that in the months ahead it will “deliver continued innovation for Open webOS with added functionality that will help us work together with partners to develop a complete solution for end users.”

Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research, thinks Phoenix’s goal is achievable, given the success some people have had in using crowdfunding sites to raise money for fringe products. But unless the OS offers some radical new capabilities or a major handset maker is willing to support it, he doesn’t expect it to compete with major players.

There is some precedent for left-for-dead tech being brought back to life: the Firefox Web browser, now one of the top browsers, was built from the open-source version of Netscape Communicator, which battled with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Zakutny believes not only that Phoenix can have a device on the market relatively soon but also that there are customers out there, both ardent fans of webOS who refuse to let it go and people who are looking for a new smartphone operating system—such as some of those migrating from Research In Motion’s struggling BlackBerry.

“I always tell people we’re better than the BlackBerry, because the BlackBerry’s not dead yet,” Zakutny says. “We’re already dead, so there’s nowhere to go but up.”

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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