webOS is a promising technology with great potential that until now has suffered from bad luck. Palm’s last great innovation, introduced before the iPad, could have been a competitor to the iOS. But Palm lacked the resources, and HP has lacked the clear vision and focus on the mobile market.
Given that history, today’s announcement that HP will release webOS under an open source license while continuing to develop it and, presumably, use it in its own products, is the best news it could have. For the right companies, webOS can be a next generation technology that competes against iOS and Android. And the right company is Research In Motion.
webOS itself is excellent technology, and it comes with a core of enthusiastic developers. Its user interface is innovative and unique, not an imitation iOS. It is designed as a full OS for mobile platforms focused on the vision of mobile as the end-user front-end to network-delivered services, making it an ideal client for public and private cloud delivered services. And it comes without the baggage of Android, which Google designed specifically to be a front-end to its services.
For RIM this could be an answer to prayers. When Palm put itself up for sale I, as a long-time Palm user, hoped that RIM would buy it. RIM needed, and still needs, a strong next-generation mobile OS that will provide the front-end its mostly business customer base needs to link their end-users with business cloud services. As the failure of the Slate shows, RIM is still looking for that technology and has been unable to develop it internally. WebOS is a near perfect fit as it stands and can easily be tailored for the needs of business users.
And because it comes without the baggage of Android and iOS, which are designed to be consumer systems capturing market share for Google and Apple respectively, it can be tuned easily to fit individual corporate needs in terms of which services it accesses (and which it does not) and security. Many enterprises do not want third parties such as Apple and Google monitoring business use of their mobile devices. RIM brings its still large business customer base and reputation for security and partnership with corporate IT to the table.
Of course RIM is not the only possible user. HP itself, if it can develop a better strategy for webOS, could certainly sell webOS tablets and smartphones to its business customer base. As could Dell, Lenovo, and the other Windows laptop makers, who so far have been left on the sidelines waiting for Microsoft Windows 8. If that OS is too long coming to market or, when it does, proves to be another Vista, they may well take a close look at webOS as a potential neutral tablet platform. For the moment, however, these vendors are committed to Microsoft for their tablet strategies.
Even the Android group, ranging from Samsung to Amazon and Kobo, may want to look at webOS. Their problem is gaining differentiation in what is quickly becoming a commodity Android mobile tablet market. WebOS would give a vendor that while freeing it from Google, which may be attractive to some.
Overall, Open Source is the best thing that could happen to webOS at this moment. The question is whether the right partners will pick it up.