Can WebOS Rise in the Enterprise?

Poor Palm WebOS -- a year ago, it was the great hope for those seeking an iPhone-killer and for Palm's survival after a decade of constant internal politicking at the expense of product development. When WebOS arrived, it showed promise, but it was not the slam dunk that Palm needed or Apple-baiters wanted. Google's Android OS quickly became the rising mobile operating system, and WebOS drifted until this spring, when Hewlett-Packard bought it as part of its Palm acquisition.

HP and Palm officials are now largely silent on plans for WebOS as they figure out the details of what to do with it. There's been some talk about using WebOS in HP printers (perhaps so they can directly run some applications around photo editing and document management) and porting WebOS to work on tablets, not just smartphones -- both are obvious directions for WebOS.

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But last week at the MobileBeat conference, Ben Galbraith, Palm's vice president for developer relations, suggested another possible direction for WebOS: the enterprise. He noted HP's deep roots in the data center and with corporate users. And he suggested that WebOS made more sense for corporate IT than other client-oriented environments because of WebOS's heavy basis in HTML5. Corporate IT developers aren't so experienced in C++ development, he said, but they do know Web development. "WebOS matches the labor force," he said.

I think Galbraith is being a bit condescending to enterprise developers with that statement, but it's true that there are many more Web developers out there than C++ developers. It's also true that having an object-oriented version of C hasn't caused potential iPhone developers to stay away.

Still, because WebOS apps are largely Web apps, corporate IT developers should be able to port their existing Web services fairly easily to WebOS, which could theoretically give WebOS an enterprise advantage, especially if HP were to release iPad-style slate tablets and more capable versions of the Palm Pre that would be better suited to business users.

And there's the rub. Right now, WebOS is not that great of a business OS. Like Android, it offers an insufficient subset of Microsoft Exchange policy support for most enterprises. There's no on-device encryption, for example. Support for the whole range of Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies is essential for a business smartphone, especially because Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Notes, and Novell GroupWise will have all standardized on EAS by 2011 as their corporate mobile connection technology. Any enterprise uses one of these servers for email, calendars, and contacts.

WebOS also lacks the device management capabilities that any enterprise will insist on. The absense of such capabilities has hobbled the iPhone's acceptance, despite the enormous demand by employees to use it. HP would be kidding itself if it thinks it can do better in the enterprise than the iPhone without such capabilities -- especially now that Apple's iOS 4 has finally added them. A new WebOS version is due by 2011, so that's HP's chance to bring the core OS up to enterprise class.

On the device side, the Palm Pre is a so-so handheld, with a so-so screen and no physical keyboard option for the many users who dislike touch keyboards. HP would need to offer both higher-quality models and variants to accommodate both the touch and physical keyboard camps.

Beyond an enterprise-grade platform, WebOS lacks an inventory of business applications available from third parties, though that's partly a chicken-and-egg issue given the small number of WebOS devices actually in use. And even the hypersuccessful iPhone has few true business applications -- perhaps 500 or so, based on InfoWorld's review of the App Store (and of those, we found fewer than 300 to be useful enough to be listed in our business iPhone app finder tool).

The attraction for HP in pushing WebOS into the corporate space is clear: First, there's much less competition right now, as the only legitimate options are the BlackBerry and the iPhone (Windows Mobile is essentially dead, and Windows Phone 7 can't possibly succeed given how outdated the new OS is proving to be). Second, HP's relationship with businesses gives it a leg up on consumer-oriented rivals such as HTC and Apple when approaching corporate buyers. Unless Research in Motion's forthcoming BlackBerry 6 OS finally pulls the BlackBerry into the present, there'll be a big hole to fill in the corporate smartphone market.

But HP has a lot of work to do with the WebOS and the Palm Pre device before it can try to fill that gap.

This article, "Can WebOS have a new life in business?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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