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Why there's real hope for webOS - if HP is committed

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Open...and Shut It's too soon to declare that Hewlett-Packard has "dump[ed] webOS in the open source trash can", as my friend and mobile open source expert Fabrizio Capobianco insists. But it's also way too soon for HP to speculate on its action being any sort of victory, given the immense difficulties inherent in successfully open sourcing technology.

Open sourcing webOS is not an end, but a means to an end, and one that depends heavily on HP's ability to get out of the way and cooperatively construct a community around the mobile platform.

It's not for the faint of heart.

Just ask Nokia, which sought to sustain Symbian as a mobile powerhouse by turning Symbian into an open-source project. Except that it didn't. Not immediately, anyway. From the outset, the Symbian Foundation promised a long wait for the Symbian code, but it took years, and was eventually pulled back into proprietary software land.

In open-source land, the lack of shipping code is a deal killer. It is impossible to sustain interest in chimerical code.

In this, webOS is already ahead of Symbian. The code is apparently already in a condition to be released, or will shortly be such. As of today, there's still nothing in the waiting GitHub repository, but I've been told by a senior executive at HP that there will not be a long wait for the code.

HP chief executive Meg Whitman is trying to dampen expectations by suggesting that HP must "walk before [it] can run with webOS", but she may not have much time to demonstrate success. Android rumbles on, powering more than 50 per cent of smartphones shipped and taking an increasingly respectable chunk of the tablet market, too.

WebOS, in other words, has given its open-source competition, not to mention Apple's iOS, a multi-year head start, despite a chorus of voices, including Capobianco's, urging HP to open source the technology back when the mobile field was more open to new entrants. And it's not encouraging - at all - that the webOS team appears to have been blindsided by the announcement. Yes, HP is a public company and must be careful about how it manages information within the enterprise, but this feels like a serious oversight.

And yet - there's hope.

For one thing, the runaway success of HP's heavily discounted, webOS-based TouchPad teaches us several things, including the possibility that a ready-made market for webOS exists, if at a price point that HP (and others) may not currently be able to sustain. Clearly, though, consumers aren't allergic to webOS. As much as the powerful sway Android and iOS may have with consumers, there's room for another option.

It's also interesting to see how successful Google's Android has become with those determined to make it less like Android. The hottest-selling Android tablet isn't Android at all, but rather a fork of Android: Amazon's Kindle Fire. Indeed, Android's leading proponents, such as Amazon and Samsung, are all active forkers of Android, each trying to improve upon its deficiencies and differentiate their products. There is no reason that webOS, instead of Android, can't become forker's first choice.

However, the key factor that will drive webOS, and others' willingness to embrace it and potentially fork it, is HP's ability to grow and sustain a robust community around it. In HP's press surrounding the announced open sourcing of webOS, it makes much of "unleash[ing] the creativity of the open source community", but gave precious few details of how it hopes to accomplish this beyond pointing to successful open-source projects/foundations like Linux and Mozilla.

Such examples, however, don't give HP a free pass to success. One of the major reasons that both Mozilla's Firefox browser and the Linux kernel have succeeded is precisely because of the lack of a big corporate entity controlling these communities. HP board member (and Netscape founder) Marc Andreessen points to Red Hat as a positive force for Linux, and he's right. But even Red Hat, as the Linux kernel's single biggest contributor, contributes just 12.3 per cent of the total code, and it certainly doesn't steer the kernel, despite its influence.

Can HP truly open up webOS development without exercising too heavy of a hand in its formation? It certainly lacks a track record of doing so, though it has been an active contributor to many open-source projects, including Linux.

Despite all the obstacles to webOS' success as an open-source project, there's a very real chance that it can succeed. Android, for all its success, is tightly controlled by Google, which is sometimes a blessing (Google provides a level of quality control) and sometimes a curse (Android is released when good for Google, not necessarily for its licensees). Google also has a growing number of conflicts of interest with Android adopters, particularly since it acquired Motorola's mobile hardware business.

In addition, Android continues to provide a subpar user experience, compared to iOS. A lack of hardware acceleration has left it feeling sluggish, and one Android developer recently identified some fundamental flaws in its design, crippling its performance. WebOS may well offer handset manufacturers and others a superior user experience.

But first it needs to nail open-source community involvement, or it's going to remain a late-to-the-party, 'me too' Android alternative that joined the open mobile party too late to make a difference. I think it can do this, but it will require a great deal of effort. And money. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analysing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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