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HP's WebOS mess: When smartphone assets go toxic

Stick a fork in Android, it's done

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On Tuesday, HP was talking to the Wall Street Journal about putting WebOS in stoves, fridges and cars. By Thursday, HP didn't even want to put WebOS into smartphones and tablets. The platform has been cast adrift just a year after HP completed its $1.2bn purchase of Palm. While it works out what to do with WebOS, HP is canning all development of TouchPad and phones, as it abandons its consumer electronics ambitions.

The list of mobile platform casualties this year is impressive. Symbian, Meego and WebOS have all either been mothballed or have been given a termination date. LiMO, the operator-backed Linux initiative founded by Samsung, Vodafone and DoCoMo, insists it is alive. We would like proof.

Add to the list Microsoft's Kin, at one time a program of great ambition, but killed a year ago so it wouldn't endanger WP7. Microsoft had spent half a billion dollars on Danger Inc, the Sidekick company founded by Andy Rubin.

As an asset destruction program, it's impressive, and invites comparisons with the great financial meltdown of 2008. The banks' assets became toxic overnight. Something similar has happened here. Unlike the financial meltdown, however, tech companies cannot count on a gullible government which is prepared to print money to buy these toxic assets. The cost runs into tens of billions, but at least this time it's not taxpayers who are footing the bill.

Poor sales of the TouchPad tablet must have made the decision easier for HP's CEO. We revealed this week that in its first week on sale in the UK, the TouchPad had sold just 100 units, and only 700 in Europe. In the US, where promotion is better, it's shifting 10 per cent of the expected quantities.

Can anything be salvaged from this?

On the face of it, WebOS is a modern and versatile smartphone OS that is now up for sale or licensing. When it first appeared in spring 2009, some people thought it was as good as Apple's iOS, and some people even thought it was better. It promised to have a low barrier to entry: JavaScript and HTML, Palm promised. I thought Nokia could do worse than buy Palm. Many of you now think that since then, Nokia has done something much, much worse than buy Palm.

Any takers?

I hear a few "yeah, buts". WebOS hasn't kept up with Apple's breakneck pace of development. This lack of innovation showed up, quite painfully, in the TouchPad tablet I looked at recently. A lot of thought had gone into it, but much of this predated the HP acquisition. The hardware was not up to snuff; I regularly hit 10-second pauses waiting for apps to start.

The (spoof) Android licensee press release statement generator

The choice for a manufacturer now is a straight one, between Android and Windows Phone. And Android has just got a lot less attractive this week, as Google has to grapple with the problem of digesting Motorola (pending regulatory approval, of course). All those eerily similar expressions of support for the Motorola Mobility takeover give away a lot of misgivings. Every Android licensee will have been burning the midnight oil this week, evaluating the costs of an alternative strategy. So, freed of its hardware conflict, HP can step in. It really is in a position to license WebOS and become the third platform rival to Apple.

Speed bumps on the road map

The problem is: there is no evidence that committee-owned platforms can produce consumer devices that people want. This isn't just a poor track record, it's a non-existent one.

Once the self-congratulatory press releases have been dispatched, the venture runs into several problems. The founding idea of Symbian was to build a common base and allow the very creative former Psion staff to develop reference designs for UIs. Nokia and Ericsson changed their minds – you can read how in the second part of my history of the project – and decided they needed to control the UI and the developers themselves. So Symbian split into S60 and UIQ, and lost much of its appeal. Some of the Psionites, who had a great record in making appealing consumer electronics data devices, got fed up and left – all before a device had been shipped. The LiMo saga is not much better.

There's a fundamental dilemma here, which is that a platform company or consortium needs to make its products generic enough to allow licensees to differentiate, but the consumer demands distinctive products. When one member of the committee has a much stronger incentive than the others - as we saw when Nokia made Symbian OS open source – the others quickly fall away.

I wouldn't underestimate how difficult it will be to get WebOS back on track. Acquiring WebOS doesn't mean you also acquire the people who made it, and know how it works – as Michael Mace writes here. Internally, HP is saying that licensing rather than divesting is the preferred option. But we know it doesn't really know what to do. Remember it is competing with free right now.

Something might change this quite soon, though. Looming in the distance is the prospect of the epic Oracle-Google court case. Informed technical opinion all points to a heavy defeat for Google. This may entail drastic changes to the Android code base. And, depending on how vindictive Larry Ellison feels that day, it may also entail additional royalty payments. At that point either Android stops being "free", or Google starts licensing future Android releases for real money.

Right now, forking Android looks a better bet for Samsung, Sony Ericsson and LG than either making a strategic bet on Windows Phone or WebOS. They regain some measure of control with a fork. But that might not be the case in a year's time. ®

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