After limited success and a massive leadership overhaul, HP announced it would release its WebOS operating system to the open source community. Most companies are no stranger to open source products, with even the most vendor-driven shop having a device, server, or other tool running an open source OS, even if it’s only subtly billed as such. Traditionally, however, open source tools have been relegated to the data center, making few inroads onto corporate desktops, save for companies with unique needs, educational institutions, and limited deployments.

Tablets present an interesting opportunity for open source. While there are some early market leaders, the space is young enough that things could change overnight. Replacing a Microsoft desktop, with its millions of available applications and end-user familiarity, is obviously daunting, but most companies and their employees have no such history with tablets. Could HP’s release of WebOS provide an open source OS its first beachhead in the battle for the end user? Perhaps, if a few things happen.

We all need someone to lean on

Many of the successful corporate open source applications eventually fell under the guardianship of a commercial entity of some sort. The software would remain free and open source, but the commercial entity would provide support and a number to call when there was a problem with the application. In some cases, these companies would enhance or augment the open source version and provide a more robust, paid product.

It’s unclear at this point if HP is planning on doing the same with WebOS. Presumably, only Meg Whitman and her cadre of advisors know WebOS’ ultimate fate, but from afar, it seems like HP is washing its hands of the platform to some extent. While it need not be HP, the average corporate IT department will demand some sort of support structure before adopting WebOS (or any open source tablet OS) in all but limited cases.

Show me the hardware

Another great hurdle for an open source tablet will be what amounts to “open” hardware. While Intel’s x86-based computing hardware is not open source in the strictest sense, it has essentially provided a universal standard for desktop, laptop, and server computing. An open source developer can write for the x86 platform knowing there are literally billions of devices that can run his or her code. Tablets are still very much vendor-centric, and aside for prototyping models, there are no “generic” tablets that I know of that could easily run an open source tablet OS.

HP’s infamous fire sale of the WebOS tablet injected a large number of devices into the wild, but unless there are plans to produce more, there’s a limited hardware pool on which to run future iterations of WebOS.

A magic bullet?

All is not doom and gloom for the future of an open source tablet OS, however. The biggest complaints about the current crop of tablets for enterprise use revolve around manageability and security. With something like WebOS as a starting point, there’s an opportunity to develop an “enterprise class” tablet OS while the rest of the pack chases after consumers. Many companies are still struggling to determine how they want to use tablets, and a corporate-driven tablet OS might provide some of the answers.

There seems to be room for no more than three major platforms for most classes’ technology, whether it’s mobile network standards, desktop operating systems, or video disc formats — and it’s a safe bet that tablets will follow a similar path. With Apple and Google entrenched in the market, and Microsoft gearing up for a major reentry into the market, it will be tough to find a slot for a fourth player. However, open source could present an interesting alternative to a big-name tablet platform and perhaps even create the revolution that the “WinTel” platform brought to corporate desktop computing.