WebOS: Dead? Oh, Sure, Almost Certainly — But Not Definitely

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Harry McCracken

Palm's Jon Rubinstein unveils WebOS in January 2009, back when it seemed full of promise

In January of 2009, Palm unveiled WebOS, its next-generation mobile operating system. A lot of us got really, really excited over it. It turned out, however, that WebOS’s launch day was its first and only moment of unalloyed glory. The Palm Pre turned out to be a disappointment. And then HP bought Palm and killed the TouchPad tablet and all other WebOS hardware after two months — a move which looked like it probably spelled curtains for WebOS, period.

HP did say that it was going to open-source WebOS and continue to devote meaningful resources to the software. But The Verge’s Chris Ziegler has a scoop: He’s reporting that the core team responsible for a large chunk of WebOS is leaving HP to go work at Google.

ZDNet’s James Kendrick says that this is the final, irreversible, definite end of WebOS:

It’s a safe call to say that webOS is finally dead in reality, if not in name. Such a sad end for what could have been a revolutionary mobile OS. RIP webOS.

I’d like to be writing a post arguing that Kendrick is wrong, or at least that there’s the tiniest glimmer of hope. Actually, I am, sort of. It’s just that I can’t provide any evidence that WebOS has a future.

Platforms need constituencies, and WebOS doesn’t seem to have one. HP, as Kendrick says, is too distracted to make it a priority. The WebOS fans I know have already given up and moved on. Many of the things which made WebOS exciting back in its, um, heyday, have shown up in iOS, Android and/or Windows Phone, greatly reducing the chances that users of competing platforms will be tempted to jump ship.

Developers? Almost every time I meet with a company that’s releasing a mobile app, I ask if it’s planning to bring it to platforms other than iOS and Android. Absolutely nobody even brings up WebOS, and if I asked about it explicitly, I’d get funny looks. (For the moment, asking “Are you planning to bring your app to other platforms?” is pretty much the same thing as asking “Are you at least considering Windows Phone?”)

Opening up a closed software product that needs TLC and resources always sounds like a good idea, but there aren’t all that many examples of it working. Mozilla — the open-source reincarnation of Netscape — is the classic success story. But it took six years between Netscape’s decision to open-source its browser and the release of Firefox. I can’t imagine that anyone thinks that WebOS has until 2017, six years after HP’s open-source move, to catch on.

At this point, no alternative mobile platform is going to thrive simply because it’s really good. It’ll need to be transcendentally superior to iOS and Android in a way that WebOS simply isn’t. Or an existing successful platform — read: Android — is going to have to make major missteps that open up an opportunity for someone else.

I do think there’s a possibility that Google will manage to botch Android. I know that if I were Samsung or HTC or LG, I’d be nonplussed with its decision to buy and operate a handset manufacturer, and I’d investigate other options. But even if Android stumbles, it’s tough to see how it helps WebOS, unless a major maker of mobile devices embraces it for all its worth. HP, which exited the phone business and will presumably release multiple Windows 8 tablets, is not that company.

And yet…

One of the things that makes technology fun is that it’s full of surprises, and even the smartest folks among us are unable to see the future clearly. If you’d been pondering the fate of Apple in 1996 and had wondered aloud if the nearly-moribund company might welcome Steve Jobs back, start making portable music players and phones and tablets, and become a massive distributor of music and movies — and if it might all lead to Apple becoming, by some measures, the most successful company on the planet — you would have been loony. And right.

So even now, it feels extraordinarily unlikely, but not completely unthinkable, that WebOS could bounce back. All it requires is a series of unlikely events which nobody can predict. Wouldn’t it be cool if it happened?