Is Open Source WebOS an Android Killer?

Tuesday Dec 20th 2011 by Matt Hartley
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The release of WebOS with an open source license has the potential to change the mobile market.

Not all that long ago, the mobile world belonged to Symbian, BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile. Now, those days are behind us and the new players are Android and iOS. Smart phone users who aren't interested in using iOS as an option, might find themselves in the Android camp instead.

All of this could change, though, as recently, WebOS has been released with an open source license. In this article, I'll explore what it would take for WebOS to compete successfully with Android, and whether WebOS is already too late to the game. My conclusion on the matter might surprise you.

A new growth opportunity

Previous to WebOS's release into the "wilds of open source licensing" it didn't do all that well when positioned against competing mobile platforms. Some people blame the fact that WebOS was late to the market. Others felt that it lacked a clear distinction from the other mobile operating systems.

My own opinion is that Palm's leadership (and later HP's efforts) are to blame for WebOS's lack of success within the marketplace. Without question, terrible marketing attempts like the Palm Pre "Go with the flow" commercial are just one of the many mistakes made by those in charge of where WebOS would end up.

Frankly, WebOS never clearly spelled out in the advertisements what it really offered to the consumer. The entire effort behind WebOS was presented as a pretty looking "me too" device and this is why I believe it failed. And the creepy commercials certainly didn't help matters much, either.

With WebOS's source code soon to be available to anyone who wants it, there's an opportunity for interested parties to take the platform and run with it. Why does this matter? Because WebOS could – with some work – potentially be installed on non-Palm smart phones in lieu of the original mobile operating system.

I believe making WebOS brain-dead simple to install on older Android phones could help WebOS explode in popularity overnight.

Android vs WebOS advantages

As things stand now, Android has some fairly solid advantages working in its favor. Among these advantages include the fact that Android owns a significant market share. In contrast, WebOS is at a disadvantage in this area. Another advantage Android has is its flourishing application marketplace. WebOS, once again, falls short here.

So how could WebOS possibly make a dent here considering all the advantages that Android has over it?

-- WebOS doesn't have a fragmentation problem. Unlike Android, we're talking about a platform running scalable, cloud-friendly software. OEMs won't be placing their own wrappers around WebOS, thus keeping the platform experience pure from device to device.

-- WebOS could run on existing mobile devices. With the right set of circumstances in place, it would be possible for WebOS to successfully run on any existing smartphones.

-- Platform independent software runs on WebOS. There is something to be said about HTML5-based software that runs anywhere vs. dancing around various mobile platforms.

strong>The mobile community and WebOS

No matter how its supporters might feel about WebOS competing in the mobile landscape, the biggest issue will be proving itself worthwhile to the mobile community at large. The problem with this is that most people simply won't care about anything new, as Android and iOS already offer great smartphone experiences.

At its best, WebOS won't offer anything that exciting out of the box. Perhaps, at first, hackers and other hands-on enthusiasts will show some interest in being able to re-purpose their existing smartphones or dual-boot them instead.

The biggest folly I see fans of a newly open source WebOS community making is the belief that handset makers are going to bother creating WebOS devices themselves. Unless mobile handset companies have money to burn, there's simply no logic in producing WebOS devices when Palm/HP already failed miserably at it.

strong>If I was in charge of the WebOS project

I believe that the overall idea behind WebOS remains sound. And despite the many errors made by those who managed the original project, I would love to see WebOS prove me completely wrong and succeed.

Unfortunately, the lack of apps, enough interested developers and some devices on which to run the OS put up a road block. Perhaps these things can be overcome. Thus far, however, I've seen little sign of any chance of long term success here.

Now if I was in charge of this project, even in its open source form, I'd consider the following ideas. First, I'd push for a campaign about "developing once, enjoying everywhere." The idea of course, is that the apps are coded to run on just about anything.

Second, I would spend any disposable cash I had on making sure that old and new smartphones can easily run WebOS. While it would keep WebOS to a geekier set of users, over time the installation process could evolve into something easily accomplished without too much trouble.

The last item I would consider is making sure that WebOS retains what made it unique in the first place. In my hypothetical scenario, I would have no interest in trying to duplicate what Android and iOS have already done.

Instead, I'd seek to capitalize on their weaknesses. Concepts such as Android's ability for customization and iOS's walled garden approach would be on the table as options. Surely, there must be a balance between the two platforms.

strong>WebOS on new devices is a mistake

Despite all the suggestions, observations and warnings I've provided above, the odds are that WebOS will be adopted by some hairbrained company and slapped into phones as if it was Android. The fact is, there won't be any real draw to a new WebOS phone, due to the lack of applications and general interest. No amount of "feel good" community effort is likely to change this.

The single most critical piece to WebOS remaining relevant in the years to come is going to be its ability to keep its users engaged. By itself, this is unlikely. This means that the community must find a way to get it onto existing devices easily and allow for cross-platform applications. WebOS is half way there with its support for HTML5 applications. Let's hope that the ability to install WebOS easily follows this path of least resistance as well.

As for Android and how it could affect WebOS adoption, I honestly don't believe the Android community sees any real competition from it. After all, Android has already made a very strong place for itself. On its best day, WebOS doesn't have any chance of removing Android from its throne.

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