Why Developers Shouldn't Abandon WebOS Yet

Hewlett-Packard's surprise announcement that it would end production of its WebOS smartphones and tablets left a lot of developers in a lurch (although exact numbers are hard to come by). As of now, the WebOS development community is effectively an ecosystem in search of a platform.

What next? The smartphone OS market is consolidating, with the lion's share divided between Google's Android and Apple's iOS. Either one of those would be a fine choice for WebOS developers looking to jump ship, but neither offers a development environment that much resembles the WebOS SDK. Meanwhile, Microsoft has been actively wooing WebOS developers to come over to Windows Phone 7, with promises of free smartphones, training, and tools.

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Maybe all this talk of abandoning WebOS is premature. Chances are most WebOS developers are already writing apps for more than one mobile OS. That could buy WebOS some time. Despite all the doom and gloom, it may turn out that WebOS developers' best strategy might be the one that most pundits were quickest to dismiss: Stick to your guns, bide your time, and plan to remain WebOS developers once the platform finds a new home -- because it's highly unlikely we've heard the last of this promising mobile OS.

Developers with dedication
It's easy to dismiss HP's plan to license WebOS as half-baked. HP doesn't have any experience licensing operating systems to outside parties, let alone maintaining a vertically integrated app store infrastructure like what customers have come to expect of a smartphone platform.

Even if it did, who would want what HP has to offer? Compared to Android or iOS, WebOS's market share is puny. Building a third OS into a viable contender would require a serious investment -- and if Microsoft can't manage it, who can?

Still, if anything could encourage a potential suitor, it's the fact that WebOS developers are nothing if not loyal. They chose WebOS despite its underdog status, knowing full well that a smaller audience meant fewer potential app sales. That kind of engaged, enthusiastic developer community is an essential ingredient for any OS platform that hopes to muscle in on the Big Two.

Palm realized this early on, so it took pains to ensure that WebOS would be a developer-friendly platform. True to its name, the WebOS programming model is based on familiar Web technologies, including HTML, CSS, and JavaScript -- a concept that has since been validated by Microsoft's plans for Windows 8. With the addition of the WebOS Plug-in Development Kit (PDK), more advanced developers can add native code to their WebOS apps for performance-intensive gaming and calculation. In addition, WebOS devices are friendly to "homebrew" firmware modifications, making them attractive to hard-core gadget hackers.

What few WebOS customers there were seemed to like it, too. When complaints arose, they tended to focus on the lackluster, underpowered hardware that was available for the platform, not its software or its UI. When the second generation of WebOS smartphones failed to bring major hardware improvements, consumers lost interest.

Who will step up for WebOS?
That fact could offer a clue as to who might be willing to pick up WebOS where HP left off. If the key to success for WebOS is better hardware, then smartphone manufacturers are in the best position to make that happen.

Smartphone vendors have shown interest in alternative operating systems lately. In Korea, Samsung has had some success with its own mobile platform, called Bada. Meanwhile, Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba has announced an OS called Aliyun that has attracted the attention of several smartphone makers. Because it is relatively mature, WebOS may be similarly attractive to manufacturers such as HTC, Huawei, and ZTE, which might not want to risk falling behind by not offering platforms of their own.

Unfortunately, if competing with Bada and Aliyun is the goal, it won't do much good for today's WebOS developers, most of whom have been developing apps for Western markets, in Western languages.

But WebOS could be appealing to smartphone manufacturers for Western markets, too. Only Apple can build iOS devices, which leaves the rest of the smartphone vendors to choose between Android or Windows Phone 7. Android is the clear market winner, but as more and more Android devices flood the market, it's getting harder for vendors to differentiate their products. A third OS option would allow manufacturers to offer a few smartphones that stand out from the crowd, even as they concentrate the bulk of their efforts on Android.

Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility gives smartphone makers another reason to be wary of Android. They may well decide it's worth the risk to gamble on an underdog like WebOS when the alternative is direct competition with a rival that has insider knowledge of the Android platform and influence over its future direction. The mobile carriers, too, have expressed concern over the prospect of a smartphone OS duopoly shared by two highly vertically integrated platforms -- so they may more than welcome a second chance for WebOS.

HP should cut its losses now
For any of these scenarios to succeed, however, HP must set aside the notion that it will be able to handle development, licensing, and management of WebOS on its own. There is absolutely no evidence that it is competent to do so. HP bought Palm in April 2010 for $1.2 billion; less than 18 months later, it's essentially throwing in the towel, with barely anything to show for the effort.

One option might be to spin off the WebOS unit as its own company, but this strategy fared poorly for Palm when it spun off the original Palm OS in 2003. Instead, HP should negotiate to sell its stake in WebOS outright, to whichever smartphone maker or carrier offers the best terms. And then it should bid farewell.

The alternative, unfortunately, is precisely the scenario the doomsayers have been predicting. HP is steadily gaining a reputation as the company where good products go to die. If that's really the path WebOS is on now, developers would be right to get out before the ship sinks. After all, we'll see WebOS again anyway -- maybe in a few more years, when HP gives up and releases it as open source.

This article, "Why developers shouldn't abandon WebOS yet," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in programming at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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

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