WebOS as a licensed operating system would likely compete most directly with Windows Phone 7, an OS that offers licensees and consumers some choice but preserves a consistent user experience -- particularly as it is trying to court developers. Unlike Windows Phone 7, though, webOS is rapidly being expanded to new form factors, with the TouchPad serving as the first tangible proof.
HP has said that it's most interested licensing to companies that wouldn't compete with it in its core markets. For now, let's count out HP's major PC competitors Acer, Dell (which once may have tried to build its own webOS-like platform when it acquired Zing), Lenovo and Toshiba. However, many companies that could help develop meaningful (in terms of absolute volume but also as a relevant development platform) scale for webOS in at least the US market offer, at minimum, handsets. A handset licensee could imbue webOS phones with features such as a 4.3-inch display that HP has shied away from, but which has been present in many successful smartphones.
Apple, RIM and Nokia clearly wouldn't bite, and Sony Ericsson likely couldn't afford to switch gears to a new OS, leaving HTC, LG, Motorola and Samsung. HP has had a strong relationship over the years with Samsung, which has been rumored to be a potential webOS licensee. Samsung is rapidly en route to becoming the world's highest-volume handset vendor. But in addition to licensing both Android and Windows Phone 7, it has its own smartphone OS. Like Samsung, HTC licenses both Android and Windows Phone 7, but tends to do what it can to pave over the operating system interface while capitalizing on available apps and extensive driver support, neither of which are provided bountifully by webOS. While some of Sense's widget-heavy UI might actually complement webOS' widgetless desktop, it could also be an awkward marriage.
Motorola has been focusing exclusively on Android now for a few years, which has been paying off, but ultimately has no hedge in an increasingly crowded Android field. In addition, its once vaunted software differentiator, Motoblur, has been vanishing. While Motorola has been pushing into the clamshell notebook market with products like the lapdock, it's a relatively pure handset play. Motorola also has strong carrier relationships and a brand name with a far tighter association with wireless than HP.
That leaves LG. Once touted as Microsoft's premiere hardware partner for Windows Phone 7, it was left out in the cold when the folks in Redmond signed their blockbuster deal with Nokia. LG has been behind Samsung in both the Android and burgeoning Windows Phone market, and is less of a threat in the laptop and printer market than Samsung. However, like Samsung, LG is a high-volume manufacturer of TVs, a complementary market for HP, which only dabbled in the TV market years ago.
There could also be potential in a carrier licensing webOS for its own branded handsets. While its debut did little to elevate Sprint when it had the first Pre as an exclusive, webOS continues to improve. Sprint would still find exceptional value in a webOS exclusive as it grapples with not having the iPhone, and webOS' friendly power could be a great fit for the prepaid market where Sprint is strong. Unfortunately for HP, the carrier that has been most aggressive about branding its own handsets under its name has been T-Mobile, which HP has not cracked with a webOS device, and which is likely vanishing soon anyway.
Finally, if an operator is a candidate, why not a retailer? Amazon and Best Buy are also both potential licensees. Amazon, of course, is a short hop from entering the tablet market with the Kindle, and Best Buy has been aggressive in building out its Best Buy Mobile stores, and has experimented with Chumby-based information appliances under the Insignia brand it also uses for its lineup of potentially webOS-enriched flat-panel TVs. Decisions, decisions....
Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.