Charity For The Holidays: HP To Contribute WebOS To Open-Source Community

HP (NYSE: HPQ) has finally figured out what to do with WebOS, and it’s unlikely to result in anything that will change the mobile landscape. The company will donate the WebOS code to the open-source community, it announced Friday, resolving a four-month-long dilemma over what to do with a once-promising piece of mobile software that has gone absolutely nowhere.

New HP CEO Meg Whitman announced the move during an all-hands meeting at HP. Turning WebOS into an open-source project means that third-party developers–both software and hardware–will be able to use the code as the basis for their own projects.

That has the potential to spark renewed interest in the software, given that hardware makers like Samsung and HTC have been looking for places to hedge their bets as the cost of doing business with Android has grown thanks to Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and Microsoft’s relentless patent assault. HP acquired a strong set of mobile patents along with WebOS when it purchased Palm, and while the company didn’t specifically address the patent issue in its press release, it’s likely that Apple and Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) would have a harder time challenging the underlying code, at least compared to how the Android industry has signed license after license with Microsoft.

But the more likely scenario is that WebOS turns into a fragmented mess, something HP promised to try and avoid by “(engaging) the open source community to help define the charter of the open source project under a set of operating principles,” it said in a release. One of those principles will be “good, transparent and inclusive governance to avoid fragmentation,” HP said, but it’s not clear how much authority HP will wield over the project.

For example, Google (NSDQ: GOOG) releases Android code under an open-source license but plays a very strong role overseeing the implementation of Android on the devices that partners build, requiring any device that wants to use the “Android” brand to include a basic set of common code and applications as to minimize fragmentation as much as possible. And obviously, that still doesn’t quite work in the Android ecosystem.

I suppose it’s better for those looking for mobile operating system alternatives that HP chose this route as opposed to shutting down the project entirely, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which this creates a competitive alternative to Windows Phone 7 as the most likely candidate for the third slot behind Android and iOS (sorry RIM). If HP couldn’t make it happen on its own, and couldn’t find anyone to buy the group outright in order to set a new course for the software, it’s hard to see how a bunch of separate groups will be able to create anything unified.

That’s because many of those Android partners who are thinking about embracing their own mobile OS destiny are doing so for two reasons: one, because they don’t entirely trust Google’s claim that it will operate Motorola (NYSE: MMI) without any favoritism should it be allowed to purchase the company; and two, because Google doesn’t let them customize Android to the degree that they would like in order to differentiate themselves in the market. So if those hardware makers embrace WebOS, it will be in order to create their own unique experiences, and despite the developer-friendly HTML5 and CSS underpinnings of WebOS, user-interface fragmentation would make it very hard for third-party developers to write WebOS code that would look nice on a variety of handsets.

One thing that could potentially be interesting: someone like Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) or Facebook might find WebOS to be a more attractive platform over which to layer their own user interface and experience. A company in that position doesn’t care as much about application compatibility because the whole point of such a strategy is to entice users into their own little walled gardens.

All in all, it’s a shame. WebOS brought some very nice ideas to the mobile world, such as elegant application-switching and notifications. But it’s pretty clear that HP now intends to embrace Windows as its mobile platform of the future, and that will force developers to consider Windows tablets in 2012 before taking a flyer on a WebOS that’s being pulled in dozens of different directions.

Updated: In an interview with Techcrunch following the announcement Whitman said that HP planned to make WebOS tablets in 2013, further confusing the issue. Why would HP commit to making a WebOS tablet in 2013 when it has already committed to making a Windows 8 tablet next year?

There’s probably some sense to the notion that by declaring its intent to build WebOS hardware, HP might encourage those thinking about developing for the OS that at least somebody will work on devices to sell to the public. But why then kill the whole project in 2011, only to restart it later? HP is sending very confusing signals about its mobile software strategy, and it’s going to be really weird to see how the company intends to market WebOS and Windows 8 tablets side-by-side, should this statement by Whitman be anything more than a smokescreen to convince people that WebOS isn’t dead.