David Zax

A View from David Zax

LG Acquires WebOS for Smart TVs

Ultimately, the operating system will live or die by its engineering talent.

  • February 25, 2013

LG is acquiring WebOS from Hewlett-Packard, reports CNET’s Roger Cheng, for use in LG’s future smart TV’s.

That’s a lot of acronyms, but what it boils down to is this: a mobile computing OS that was critically loved but commercially shunned, then thought to be left for dead, may have an afterlife–in televisions, of all things.

First, a quick refresher on WebOS, whose tale of wandering and banishment and acquisition and sloughing off reads like something out of Exodus (though the Chosen Operating System it was not). WebOS was initially developed by Palm, then acquired by HP. The intention–anounced in 2011–was for WebOS to be the operating system animating all HP devices. But devices like HP’s Veer and TouchPad proved to be flops, and it soon became clear that HP was regretting its $1.2 billion acquisition (see “Was WebOS Doomed from the Start?”).

HP has periodically made a few moves that succeeded in convincing a few people that the operating system was “reborn” in some fashion. In late 2011, for instance, itmade WebOS’s code available under the open source license. The hope (at least within the optimistic tech blogosphere) was that this would breathe new life into the operating system, which would be sustained as some sort of magical Wikipedia of mobile software.

And yet I didn’t see many WebOS devices proliferating in 2012. Did you?

The most promising WebOS-related news last year was first reported by Derek Kessler of WebOSNation, a site carrying the torch for enthusiasts of the operating system. Kessler reported in October of 2012 that LG was working together with Gram, the rebranded WebOS Global Business Unit, on getting the OS into future LG TV’s. Reading between the lines here, it sounds like the staff at Gram and LG hit it off, and decided to formalize a relationship with an acquisition. It’s hard to see any reason why HP would frown upon such a marriage; it must be relieved to close this chapter on its product history.

Cheng says that LG optains “the source code for WebOS, related documentation, engineering talent, and related WebOS Web sites.” Given that the source code is now open, “related documentation” sounds like a glorified way of saying “user manuals,” and “related WebOS Web sites” seem like they can’t cost that much, it seems like what LG really acquired here was that engineering talent.

For WebOS to really flourish in an LG smart TV, that engineering talent needs to be dedicated, passionate, and well-remunerated. We sometimes forget that technology is animated by the people who make it–not just those who put down the first lines of code, but also those who remain with a product as it grows a community. WebOS is said to have floundered in large measure because one of its early top engineers was hired away by Google to the Android unit.

We should rememeber that when we talk about WebOS–when we talk about any tech product–we’re really talking about people, the engineers toiling behind the scenes. Kessler over at WebOSNation has done a good job of chronicling where that talent has or hasn’t gone, and the moments when those managing the talent have been mealy-mouthed or non-commital in their answers.

The best venture capitalists often invest not in products or ideas, but in teams. Whether WebOS has an afterlife or not will all depend on who is stewarding that supposed afterlife.

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