A few years ago Palm released the Pre. This phone was going to save Palm from a painful death by obscurity. The Palm products simply couldn’t hang with the current crop of smart phones. The only device it had to compete with was the Treo, which was quickly growing worthless in the world of demanding users. The Treo couldn’t multi-task, had no app market, offered a pittance of apps offering any value to the user, was prone to crashing, and had one of the slowest mobile network experiences on the planet.

And then came the Pre. For all intents and purposes, the Pre was poised to take the smart phone market by storm. It offered a fantastic user interface, ran incredibly smoothly, could multitask, had an app store… all the makings for complete success.

But again, in the hands of Palm, it failed.

HP eventually stepped in, bought Palm, and killed the Pre. What HP did keep was WebOS — the platform that powered the Pre. With the intention of using WebOS to power inexpensive tablets, HP did what it could, but ultimately the anti-Midas touch of Palm struck again and the efforts of HP and WebOS failed. So there was HP, left with a really good platform that could be of use. So, in a gesture of good faith, HP released WebOS as an open source platform.

But why? What was the purpose of releasing WebOS into the world as open source? HP has yet to define exactly how they are going to interact with the open source community, which has led to much speculation. Naturally, I have a take… and here it is.

HP sees WebOS as a POSSIBLE vehicle for sales. They need a platform for tablet hardware (a market that is only going to continue to explode in the next couple of years) and don’t want to have to deal with Google and Android. So, the best possible solution (one that wouldn’t require them to funnel precious dollars from other budgets) was to release WebOS into the wild with an open source license. This does a number of things:

  • Gets WebOS a possible large-scale development community without affecting the bottom line.
  • Endears them to the open source community.
  • Enables them to more easily bring back to market a tablet device.
  • Possibly wipes away the stigma attached to WebOS.

Ultimately I believe HP has finally tossed their hands up in the air to say, “We have no idea what do with this platform, so we’re going to put it in your hands.” But that’s not a bad thing. The open source community could do quite a lot with this newfound relationship.

I have been saying, for quite some time, that Linux and the open source community better figure out a way to land themselves in the tablet parade as soon as humanly possible. Granted, I’d much rather see a full-blown Linux tablet hit the market, but a solid WebOS entry will do. This could be just the open door they need. They not only have a tablet/mobile platform, they have a direct line with a manufacturer that could produce the hardware necessary to get that open source tablet to market (something the open source community does NOT currently have.)

Honestly, this is a big score for the open source community IF (and only if) they handle it well. HP will probably do whatever they can to dredge something from the muck and mire of the deal that brought WebOS to them; and making WebOS open source might have been the best decision they’ve made in a long, long time. The biggest dangers in this move are:

  • The open source community rejects (or mishandles) whatever deal HP offers, demanding more transparency or access.
  • HP fails to deliver on any promise they make to create hardware for the platform.

In my opinion, I believe HP is honest in their desire to keep WebOS alive. It is a good platform and one perfectly suited for the open source community to develop and bring back to life. The tablet market needs competition. Right now we have but two competitors (Apple and Android) and one niche competitor (Amazon). If HP and the open source community can bring to life a solid entry into the tablet market, things could (and should) get very interesting.

I, for one, look forward to seeing what the open source community can do with WebOS. There are some fantastic developers out there with a strong eye for design and user-friendliness. This marriage could bring a very unique and powerful tablet to market — one that I would be very happy to have.

What do you think? Is the HP/WebOS/Open Source marriage a positive step for the platform? Or is this nothing more than a last-ditch effort on HP’s part to keep that deal from complete and utter failure?