Open webOS: What It Means

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HP did something pretty cool the other day: it delivered on a promise it made to webOS customers.

I already mentioned, in yesterday’s article about HP’s Windows Phone destiny, why that alone is a newsworthy event. From casual customers to the top champions of the platform, webOS users were given one of the biggest raw deals in tech history when HP terminated all webOS development little more than a month after the release of its flagship product, in the midst of one of the strangest corporate shake-ups ever. HP still hasn’t fully recovered from the accompanying (aborted) attempt to spin-off its Personal Systems Group.

webOS ultimately emerged as the biggest victim of that quagmire, going from HP’s crown-jewel to a $1.2 billion write-off almost overnight. Suddenly all of HP’s missteps and bungles since its Palm acquisition paled in comparison to this biggest betrayal of all: the total elimination of webOS as a contender in the platform wars.

So the fact that HP actually delivered on a promise to the webOS community last week was newsworthy. Not quite newsworthy for us to cover (more on that in a second), but several outlets reported on the company’s release of Open webOS 1.0, the reborn iteration of the platform that, as the name implies, seeks to bring webOS from its proprietary roots to fully open-source status.

So what is it? Anticipating that question, HP brought in webOS Chief Architect Steve Winston to explain it in a video that you should not watch if you’re driving, or in the midst of operating heavy machinery:

If you nodded off there for a second, the upshot is this: the UI of Open webOS strongly resembles the webOS we all know and love, with its distinctive cards-based multitasking and bottom-anchored dock. The foundation, though, has been replaced. Whereas Palm’s webOS was built on a custom Linux kernel, Open webOS, according to the platform’s new home at openwebosproject.org, “operate[s] using typical open practices: the Project uses the Apache 2.0 license, is hosted on GitHub, and accepts contributions via a Certificate of Origin approach.”

That the language used is dry, and the video above is pretty much the dullest thing ever, speaks volumes about the shift that’s occurred between webOS and Open webOS. That this is dry stuff is not Winston’s fault -he’s an engineer, not a showman- and it’s not necessarily HP’s either. The new messaging reflects webOS’ new destiny, which is not just a (doubtless minor) foray into a few one-off smartphones and tablets, but what HP hopes is a future as the operating system of choice for large companies featuring customer-facing computer systems. Winston uses the example of hotels:

Think of a hotel kiosk. Users want to browse the web, print directions, make reservations. They want to do it via a simple and intuitive user interface. The hotel wants a device that can be easily managed. They want to control which bookmarks are there in the browser … They want the ability to push new functionality. webOS … gives you the ability to do just that.

It makes a lot of sense for HP to try to leverage the remainder of its investment in webOS in such a manner: it plays right to the company’s corporate roots, its effort to continue its infiltration of the enterprise sector. But it’s hard to avoid contrasting the above video’s grey, emotionless tone with the pomp, bombast and excitement surrounding webOS’ previous product launches, when it was (trying to become) a relevant consumer product. Notwithstanding the bright, consumer-friendly colors of the Open webOS Project site or the sometimes-blind positivity of the enthusiast community, the future of Open webOS seems fully mired in the dull reality of corporate enterprise applications.

That’s part of the reason the OS’s re-release wasn’t treated as hot-item news here at Pocketnow, but it’s not the main reason. The real meat of the issue is that Open webOS isn’t yet running in a usable fashion on a handheld device. It’s currently confined to test desktop equipment like HP TouchSmart PCs, a product category on which we don’t regularly report. The early success enjoyed by some of the webOS homebrew community in porting the platform, in embryonic form, to the Galaxy Nexus and Asus Transformer Prime is encouraging, but at this early stage it hasn’t yet resulted in a truly usable experience.

Though photos like these have us aching for more.

In short: the story behind Open webOS isn’t even in its first chapter. In fact, it’s barely at the prologue stage. HP delivered the 1.0 release on time, but as Derek Kessler over at webOS Nation puts it, “the important thing about … Open webOS is that it’s now a complete operating system and something that can be ported to other devices.”

That’s what we’re dealing with right now; a skeleton, capable of being moved to compatible devices by members of the community and any hardware manufacturers who might be interested. Open webOS is an exciting development, and a spark of good news for a group of tech fans who haven’t had much to hope for from their favorite OS in the last year -myself included. But it’s a shell of a platform, with no app store, no Synergy services, and several other large chunks missing … chunks that helped make webOS great in the first place. Given enough time, the community and the partners struggling to keep “the little platform that could” relevant will likely be able to restore or replace some of that functionality.

But there’s that old word again: “time.” All of the above involves a lot of work, even for the talented and dedicated people slaving away on the platform’s behalf. And that means that, once again, webOS fans are in for a lot more waiting before they see anything of mobile significance grow from last week’s announcement.

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Open webOS info source: The Open webOS Project

Additional info, photos via webOS Nation

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!