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12 December 2011, 16:58
The new Plan B

Comment: Is webOS the new Plan B for mobile?

By Dj Walker-Morgan

After HP ignominiously dumped the hardware, the webOS software is now to be released as open source. With many companies in the mobile space looking for a backup plan, a Plan B, to Google's Android, is webOS the open source mobile operating system they have been waiting for?

HP has now formally announced that webOS, the TouchPad and Palm Pre's mobile operating system, is to be open sourced. But will that move make any difference to the future of open mobile platforms? The open mobile past is littered with might-have-beens like Maemo, Moblin and MeeGo and has-beens like Limo and Symbian.

The one success is Android, a Linux-based mobile phone operating system so successful that Microsoft turned up at the OEMs' back doors asking for patent licensing royalties, as they do when anything gets successful. Microsoft has had quite a lot of success licensing patents to Android vendors, as a lot of vendors picked Android as their Plan A.

Microsoft isn't Android's only problem though; take the closed development model that Google use to create each edition of Android, allowing them to keep an entire version, Honeycomb, out of the hands of open source developers – Google said they took too many short cuts and weren't happy with the code, while others believe they just wanted a bit more direct control of the nascent Android tablet market. Whatever the reason, the message that went out was that it was Google who was really in control of Android.

The acquisition of Motorola, the apparent preferred vendor status that makers of the Google Nexus devices get, and many other niggles, have sent phone and tablet makers looking for a Plan B. For some, that Plan B was MeeGo, the OS created from the merger of Intel's Moblin and Nokia's Maemo and pulled together under the aegis of the Linux Foundation. The trio were making steady progress to get MeeGo to market: with Nokia touting MeeGo as its Plan A, it was expected to deliver smartphone handsets with MeeGo. And then MeeGo was dealt a near-death blow when Nokia switched to Windows Phone 7 as their primary phone operating system. That left Intel and the Linux Foundation with a mobile operating system and no major route to market.

A rapid rethink, so rapid it appeared to take participants and contributors to MeeGo by surprise, led to the creation of Tizen, yet another open mobile operating system. This time it is Samsung who is the new player involved, with its Samsung Linux Project being poured into an all new framework for HTML, CSS and JavaScript applications on phones and tablets. But for Samsung, this is just one of a number of operating systems it pushes into the market: it already does Android devices, successfully, and has its own Bada operating system mostly for its native markets. But Tizen currently has no schedule, no roadmap and no apparent strategy as to how it will make it to market. The only other potential player is Mozilla's B2G project and that's in early development with no obvious route to market either.

Meanwhile, HP had been busy tangling its own web. After spending $1.2 billion dollars acquiring Palm and its Pre smartphones, launching its own tablet, the TouchPad, it then failed, along with everyone else, to make a dent in Apple's iPad market share. The TouchPad is a great showcase for the webOS 3 operating system that HP and Palm developed in-house. Built around HTML, CSS and JavaScript for applications, it also includes software like the JavaScript-based node.js to implement long-running services, the ENYO application framework to create attractive UIs for applications, and it's all plugged into numerous social networks and other sources of contact information through its Synergy system. When HP's previous CEO pulled the plug on the hardware, after trying to shop the webOS platform around, he left the software side of things for his successor, Meg Whitman to sort out.

Working from now

And that gets us to now, December 2011. In the overall market, iPhone and Android are together dominating the market for smartphones, RIM and its Blackberry are slipping, and Windows Phone 7 is still waiting to make its impact. Google has delivered Android 4.0, but for the holiday season it's only on one phone, the Samsung/Google Galaxy Nexus, and no tablets.

It's into this market that Whitman has decided to drop webOS as an open source product. Expectations should be set appropriately though. No OEM is going to adopt webOS as their Plan A right now, but it has potential as the open source Plan B for a lot of those same companies. Technically, webOS has a lot going for it. First of all, and most importantly, it exists in tablet and phone form factors and there are systems already running it. It has taken an innovative approach to multitasking with its cards UI, rather than taking its prompting from Cupertino. Its not an alpha, beta or version 1.0 but a version 3.0, and that shows in the mature APIS, SDK and emulator, and it has compared well against Android and iOS in the past.

What really counts next is what HP creates as webOS's open source and community structure. Details on how webOS will make its open source debut are thin on the ground, but HP says it will be actively investing in the project and helping develop it after creating transparent governance. Let's assume that they aren't going to go back on these points and look at what they are apparently trying to do; be everyone's Plan B.

A mobile operating system is a long term investment for anyone, whether as a Plan A or B, and it is likely that when HP shopped around for a buyer for webOS they heard that no one company could afford to fund it. Opening the code would be equally tricky: HP, or any prospective buyer, couldn't hold onto it and declare the code open source either, as that would mean them retaining control of the code and running the risk of looking too Google-ish. This would explain why HP appears to be planning on pushing the code out into a community-driven project; anyone can participate without betting the house on a single vendor's goodwill and good citizenship.

Open source communities are built around everyone exercising an enlightened self-interest, and that leaves the question of what HP's self-interest is in open source webOS. With no product to put webOS in, there's no route for HP to make money with webOS, but Whitman is reported to have said that webOS devices may be on HP's 2013 roadmap. Is a one-year hardware hiatus breathing room, stepping back enough to allow other companies to get a foothold in the project, or bluffing space, cover for the fact they are unable to build hardware they can economically sell with webOS and HP looking to garner a bit of goodwill as puts webOS into the public memory hole.

For a company that is already committed to Windows 8 tablets in 2012, how HP puts its initial open source assertions into action, how it specifically funds and organises the new home for the open sourced webOS, will be critical in determining if the project is about breathing or bluffing for HP. For the rest of the mobile industry, it will about how much it needs a new Plan B and is prepared to invest in developing it. And for the wider open source community? It will, at worst, be a useful resource to be mined for code, but at best, if HP move it to open source and create that open, transparent governance, it could turn out to be the open source Plan B that a lot of people have been waiting for.

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