WebOS goes open source: here we go again

When HP announced earlier this month that it will “contribute the webOS software to the open source community,” my first reaction was “here we go again.”

If you follow the mobile platform field, you may remember that Nokia followed a similar path with the Symbian OS back in 2008, buying out the private company that developed the then-proprietary platform, and releasing the platform as open source. Nokia went a step further than HP, creating an independent, non-profit Symbian Foundation to manage the evolution of the platform and deals with device vendors. By the end of 2010, however, after failing to attract new device partners, and losing most of the existing ones, the Foundation was “transitioned to a licensing body“, bringing to an end the ambitious plans for building an open source community around Symbian. Nokia still makes and sells Symbian devices, but is phasing out the OS in its devices in favor of Windows Phone.

In all fairness, WebOS is a much different animal than Symbian, which puts HP in a better position to make it a success. By 2008, Symbian was way behind the times in terms of features and user experience, and the developer offering was limited and incredibly complex compared to what Apple and Android were offering. By contrast, developers like WebOS, and the (few) consumers who bought WebOS devices were generally satisfied with them.

I don’t think it’s fair to say that HP just “dumped” WebOS to open source, but it will take more than just an open source structure to give the platform a fighting chance in a very competitive market. What I’ve learned from the failed Symbian experience, and the success of iOS and Android, is that a high-quality platform by itself does not guarantee market success. What really matters is the rest of the “ecosystem” around the platform. At a simple level, this includes four critical components:

  1. Strong governance and management of platform evolution
  2. Integration into successful devices
  3. Competitive distribution channel for apps and services
  4. Dedicated developer community

The details of governance are still being worked out, but even if HP decides on a solid governance model, it will take continuing investment by HP (at least at the beginning) to execute on that model and keep the community going. Running an open source community is not necessarily cheaper than running a closed-source one, and may require even more resources to manage partners and the pressure to fragment the codebase. The most successful open source projects, like Webkit, work because a small number of companies invest lots of people and time into improving the code and managing the community.

The device plans may be a weak spot. It’s not clear if any manufacturers want to take on the cost of integrating WebOS to their hardware, considering HP’s own vague commitment to device development. Device integration is not easy or cheap, whether or not the platform itself is open source or proprietary. The real potential for WebOS may be found not in phones and tablet, but, as InfoWorld suggests, in other consumer, medical, and even industrial devices.

On the distribution side, HP can build on its existing App Catalog, and can presumably encourage WebOS integrators to include that channel in their devices.

The success of WebOS as a developer platform may depend on the success of the other three factors. The platform may be cool and easy to work with, but if there are no devices in the market, and no reliable distribution channel (or governance), there won’t be much incentive for developers to invest in the platform. (For WebOS, it’s also possible that the appeal of the open web will be stronger than a particular web OS).

So in conclusion, HP has a chance to make this work, but it’s not going to be easy. Even if WebOS does succeed, it’s not clear (to me at least) how HP makes any money from it, unless they follow through on their promises to make and sell WebOS devices. I don’t see app store and professional services revenue being enough to make back the $1.2 billion they spent on Palm in a reasonable amount of time.

I can’t resist a personal note here. I worked at Nokia as a developer platform evangelist during the Symbian open source adventure, when I found myself in the position of promoting the Symbian open source strategy in the face of strong competition from the up and coming iPhone and Android platforms.

In other words, I have been there, done that…

Sanfran- Oren  Levine, Nokia

…and (literally!) got the T-shirt(!)

MWC 2009: Symbian-powered truck


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