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Switched On: Open source, open issues for webOS


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

HP's decision to contribute webOS to the open source community represents, at the very least, a detour from the company's plans to "double down" on the operating system acquired from Palm, Inc. The good news for fans of the OS is that HP will continue to invest in the software's development, albeit probably not at the unsustainable rate at which it was going it alone. And for webOS fans, the decision is certainly more favorable than another possibility that HP considered -- ending the development of webOS software as abruptly as it ended the hardware..

Still, webOS faces an uphill climb if it is to emerge as a viable option for device makers. HP itself says that it may not enter the webOS device market again until 2013 and we've seen no public statements from other major device makers champing at the bit to build devices based on the software, at least not in its current state. That means that the addressable market for webOS updates is the relatively meager installed base of TouchPads and the handful of Pres, Veers and Pixis, and many owners of those smartphones will likely move on as their contracts expire..

Surely, the clever open source community will find a way to get webOS on all kinds of existing devices. Here, the software may even get something of a helping hand from its rivals Android and the coming ARM-based version of Windows. However, as Switched On discussed with regard to an Android netbook, that's an even smaller hobbyist market.

One of the challenges that HP faced with webOS was that it had never been at the center of an ecosystem trying to build a developer base for a consumer operating system. Likewise, though, it has never been at the center of a major open source project, which involves managing not only internal development constituencies but external ones as well. Still, HP says it is ready to step into the kind of role that Google serves for Android.

Speaking of Android, its incredible momentum begs the question of whether we need another open source mobile operating system from which to choose. Perhaps the most viable recent open-source challenger to Android, MeeGo, managed to find its way onto one phone (the Nokia N9) and one netbook (the ASUS X101) from major manufacturers before being folded into yet another merged OS offering called Tizen. WebOS will also continue to face intense competition from closed-source vendors Apple, RIM and Microsoft. These competitors will have development in high gear during a year when webOS is going through yet another transition.

Perhaps the biggest question, though, lies not in whether HP and the open source community can execute on making webOS a stronger competitor, but whether anything can carve out turf between the iOS monolith and the Android skyline. So far, such ground has not proven fertile in the mobile OS turnaround attempts of Microsoft and RIM. However, as mobile devices, particularly tablets, take on more PC-like tasks, there is the highly successful example of Windows on the PC to pursue, the very offering that HP -- and many other companies -- won't hesitate to embrace in future tablet generations before revisiting webOS..

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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