WebOS lives! HP decides to open source the platform

After on-again, off-again news about the webOS mobile platform, HP(s hpq) has come to a final decision: WebOS will be offered to the open source community. HP will still be involved in the platform to help developers and aid in governance for webOS. The choice effectively gives a third life to the platform, first developed by Palm and later purchased by HP.

In a press release sharing the news, HP CEO Meg Whitman touts the mobile platform as robust enough to power future devices:

[W]ebOS is the only platform designed from the ground up to be mobile, cloud-connected and scalable. By contributing this innovation, HP unleashes the creativity of the open source community to advance a new generation of applications and devices.

HP spent $1.2 billion to acquire Palm and its webOS resources in April, 2010, but the investment hasn’t paid off. It took more than a year for the company to design and build the HP TouchPad tablet running webOS, which was never considered successful. At least not until the price was drastically reduced to $99 when HP decided to leave the tablet market it only just entered.

With the operating system now to be open sourced, we could see device makers build new phones or tablets with it, as no licensing fee would be required. This is similar to Google Android(s goog), but the challenge for webOS is the ecosystem. Android has become the most-used smartphone platform to date and developers are writing apps for it, as well as Apple’s iOS (s aapl) devices. WebOS still has many fans — myself included — but doesn’t have as strong of an ecosystem.

It’s also possible that HP itself could jump back in the mobile hardware game, but of course there are no guarantees. My suspicion is that this scenario would only play out if the open source community gave HP a reason to do so by maturing the platform and third-party software offerings.

Other hardware makers could play a wait-and-see game too, although I’d rule Samsung out as using webOS: The company has quietly developed its own Bada OS, which is gaining an audience and gives Samsung a backup plan for Android. Not that it needs one yet.