There were several reports this week that HP has begun hiring more than 50 positions for the Open WebOS project. Most of the positions are high-paying engineer jobs in Sunnyvale and Shanghai. While I personally would love to see all of the jobs here in the U.S., the fact that HP is "putting their money where their mouth is" on Open WebOS is indeed news.
I was one of the folks in the media who called on HP to open source WebOS when they pulled the plug on their experiment into tablets and phones last year. I was happy when they did, in fact, announce plans to open source WebOS. Since then, though, I have grown disillusioned.
I think HP's whole sordid history regarding the billion dollar+ purchase of Palm and WebOS is like something out of the Twilight Zone. After paying all that money and untold more in spinning up the WebOS unit within HP, designing and bringing to market the Touchpad and a new generation of phones, they pulled the plug barely a month after the launch.
After a few months of silence and rumors they announced they were open sourcing WebOS. Then came word that the open version of WebOS would not run on the WebOS-powered devices that HP themselves built. The new open WebOS would be meant for future devices built by others. That is where this got a little too weird for me even. I know that some of the drivers and code in the HP WebOS products were third-party code that HP could not open. But if the CyanogenMod team can do it, I am sure HP could have made it happen.
By now speculation was rampant that HP was running away from WebOS as quickly as it could. But now the company comes out and announces these new positions, curious to say the least. What exactly are HP's plans for open WebOS.
Everyone seems to feel that a return to the consumer market with tablets/phones would be an unmitigated disaster for HP. I don't disagree. At this point, who would believe that HP was in this for the long run? So the prevailing theory is that if HP is smart they will develop WebOS for the enterprise market, then try to usurp RIM's once-dominant position with BlackBerry. Apple has a hot/cold relationship with targeting the enterprise, and Android is fragmented (so the story goes), it is a great chance for WebOS.
But this has been the story for WebOS for a long time now. It was the story when HP bought Palm. It was the story when HP open sourced WebOS. What is different now? In my mind, I have the same reservations about HP in the enterprise market with WebOS as I do in the consumer market. What makes you think they don't pull the plug on this in 6 or 9 months, or even sooner?
Using the open WebOS, where is the business model to recoup their investment? What is the special sauce HP is going to add? They can't even move the hardware they themselves designed over to the open WebOS. Are we to really believe that now they are serious and are committed to WebOS in the long run?
On the business model, what is HP's play? They can't sell the open source OS. Will they sell services and support around it? I don't think that will be enough to sustain the investment or move the needle at a company the size of HP. Will they build new hardware around it? Again, if they were going to do that, why would this time be different than last time? They already have announced and shown Windows 8-based tablets. Will they make both WebOS- and Windows-based gear? I think not. Perhaps they will sell their work to third-party OEMs? Again, I just don't see it.
If you go with the replace BlackBerry notion, will they engineer porting WebOS onto existing BlackBerry hardware? If they did, it is at best a short-term play as the useful life of the hardware is measure months. Then what?
No, I am afraid that for WebOS, the best possible future it has is that now that it is open source, some new white knight comes in and rescues it from the HP Twilight Zone that it has been living in for these past few years.
You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension - a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.