What should HP do with webOS?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| Published: November 8, 2011

It has been an uphill battle for webOS since day one. It launched on the brink of an Android explosion and quickly fell from the limelight to the shadows only a few weeks after its launch. In short, Palm missed the mark in more ways than one. Hardware was mediocre and the first version software, much like all other first versions, was far from complete. And Palm decided to fight this war single-handed, while Android and its allies were deploying troops on nearly every carrier in America and stretching overseas, simultaneously.

From the first time I ever used webOS, I knew it had promise and could only hope that others saw the good in it as well. It was fairly rough around the edges at launch and has since come a long way. But the mass adoption it needed to thrive never happened, and over the course of two years, webOS devices became taboo for wireless providers – devices that sat on shelves and hardly moved. On the verge of the Pre 3 launch, UK operators refused to carry the device. The webOS handset later faced a similar fate stateside.

Back in August, the then-HP CEO, Leo Apotheker, made an abrupt decision to spin HP's hardware business and pull out of the webOS hardware business, too. They quickly emptied the remaining stock of webOS hardware with a fire sale and the tech world was left in shock and awe. It caused an uproar from webOS fans, HP employees and even some competitors.

Since then, Apotheker has moved on and has been replaced by Meg Whitman. She reversed most of Apotheker's plans and has salvaged the waning hope for a resuscitation of webOS. Earlier this evening, HP held an all-hands meeting. It was originally suspected that HP would walk away from the meeting with a plan for webOS. Instead, Whitman has respectfully decided to think this through a little longer, promising a decision in the next three to four weeks. "It's really important to [her] to make the right decision, not the fast decision," says a tipster in talks with The Verge.

So what could the right decision possibly be?

Well, prior to the fire sale, webOS had next to no mind share outside of the realm of tech enthusiasts and old die-hard Palm fans. But a significant tablet with great hardware selling at $99 and $149 doesn't happen every day. It isn't clear just how many TouchPads HP managed to move, but that isn't the point; they're now on the map. (I had a feeling this was the whole idea in the first place.)

Of course, they could easily just sell it off to a hardware manufacturer that's in the market for their own OS. Initially, we believed Samsung would be one of the potential takers. However, they have since partnered with Intel with a Linux-based mobile OS of their own (a new direction for MeeGo) called Tizen. Motorola was on the fence about pursuing their own web-based platform in light of Google not protecting or standing up for their partners in ongoing patent suits. But Google all but killed any dreams of that with the proposal of buying Motorola to broaden their patent library and more closely integrate software with hardware.

That leaves LG and HTC. Of the two, I would undoubtedly prefer to see HTC purchase webOS. They held the "king of Android" title for roughly two years and easily produce some of the nicest hardware and devices – an obvious shortcoming of webOS to date – in the world. That said, HTC would only muck up the beautiful and clean webOS interface with their resource intensive Sense UI and over the top animations. Still, this would be better than webOS disappearing forever.

Originally, when this whole HP ruckus broke out, I wanted HP to sell webOS. Apotheker was inevitably going to sweep the software under the carpet and move on or find a way to screw up licensing the platform to partners. I don't know a lot about Whitman, but she steered eBay through some of their finest, most impressive days and I feel she could do the same with HP. And I feel webOS should be a part of the company's rehabilitation.

No, I do not think HP should sell webOS. Instead, they should license to partners, balancing between what Google and Microsoft are doing with Android and Windows Phone, respectively. They should allow partners to purchase a license for the platform and use it on their devices, but they should also open source it and allow companies to mold it into what they want – within reason, of course.

Some of my best experiences with webOS have been through the use of Preware (somewhat similar to Cydia for the iPhone, but still quite different and unofficially, officially recommended by HP). Seeing another platform out there that can give Google a dose of its own medicine would be nice. It would stiffen competition and force Google, HP and partners to push the limits of what can be done with mobile, open source software.

It won't be easy for HP to keep webOS around. Sure, the platform now has an inkling of mind share, but carriers have been unimpressed by webOS devices since the start. And the mobile market is more vicious and volatile than ever before. But it is believed that there is space for a third mobile ecosystem, and Windows Phone doesn't have too much of a head start on webOS at this point. Not only that, but HP has already invested a lot of time in the platform and has built the beginnings of a very tight-knit ecosystem of its own. To be honest, I would much rather prefer to see webOS take a seat among Android and iOS over Windows Phone. With a better business plan, a CEO with a clue, the aid of manufacturers who can produce topnotch hardware and the engraved knowledge of what doesn't work for webOS, there is a faint glimmer of hope for webOS. Small, but hope nonetheless.

It would be a shame for HP to sell the software off and see yet another company run the beautiful, fluid software we all want to love into the ground ... again. I'm not sure I could take it a third time. I would rather see HP fail trying than just giving up now.

Image via PreCentral