HP In Talks To License webOS — But Who Would Want To?

The fact that HP is considering licensing webOS isn’t exactly news — HP head honcho Leo Apotheker said as much in an interview weeks ago.

What is news, however, is that such licensing deals might already be in their early stages. At least, that’s what we’re gathering from this Bloomberg piece, where Apotheker is quoted as saying HP is already in talks with “a number of companies” regarding putting webOS on their devices.

My only question: Why the heck would anyone want to?

Now, don’t get me wrong: I loves me some webOS. I’ve been rooting for the little-platform-that-couldn’t since the early days, and have always given it more attention on this site then was probably warranted. Even as someone who very much digs everything webOS set out to do, however, I can’t figure out why anyone would license it today.

Picking up a new platform isn’t just a matter of signing some papers, crafting up some pretty gadgets, and executing the “INSTALL WEBOS!” command. Your team needs to know the platform almost as well as its creators do — to be able to craft drivers, massage the platform onto a new device, and work out all the kinks requires an almost exhaustive knowledge. It’s a huge commitment, in both time and money.

The most glaring issue: the platform has had two years to prove viable. It hasn’t. That’s in the hands of its makers. The people who should know this platform in and out have been unable to make a compelling device — and, in cases like the Pixi and Pixi Plus, have resorted to churning out devices that don’t even work worth a damn.

Second: a devastatingly large chunk of the core team has left. Take their user experience team, for example — the guys who crafted webOS into what it is, and birthed so many of its finest ideas. Matias Duarte, Senior Director of UX? Left for Google. Wes Yun, Creative Director? He’s at Motorola now. Senior Manager Daniel Shiplacoff? Google. This type of bleeding went down throughout the company, from in-house development to developer relations to the PR team. The team behind webOS today is not the same team that was behind webOS when HP bought Palm.

Third: The apps. The number of apps your platform has isn’t everything, but it’s definitely a big something — but webOS’ app selection is … pretty terrible. While iOS and Android battle it out with their hundreds-of-thousands of apps each, webOS passed 5,000 apps in December of last year and has yet to hit even 7,000 a whole six months later. webOS is primarily built off of web technologies, with the option to develop in native code for those who chose to do so. Developing for it — even if you’re almost brand new to mobile development — is meant to be a breeze. And yet, even after Palm threw a few million dollars at developers in their big “Hot Apps” contest, developers just don’t seem to care.

The list goes on and on. We could touch on the fact that neither Palm or HP have proven themselves able to build software updates in any reasonable time frame (and that’s with just a handful of devices on the market, all of which they made.) We could bring up how painfully slow webOS updates have been to ship across carriers. We could go on and on about how the company doesn’t even seem to know what it wants internally, as HP CTO Phil McKinney just went on record this week saying that they need to “control the experience end to end”, and that the “ability to control both the hardware platform and OS is absolutely critical” — which, to us, sounds pretty contradictory to “Hey guys! Who wants to license some webOS?!”.

But we won’t.

According to the initial report, Bloomberg has “three people with knowledge of the discussions” claiming Samsung is, or has been, in talks with HP regarding putting webOS on their devices. No big surprise there, really; Samsung releases a new device (or two) nearly every week, and tends to experiment with new platforms regularly. Getting excited about Samsung testing the waters with your platform is akin to getting excited that your parents came to your 8th Birthday party. If they didn’t, it probably means something is wrong.

If Samsung is still in talks regarding webOS — that is, if the cited talks haven’t already blown over — it’s almost undoubtedly not the saving grace that webOS fans (not to mention HP) would hope for. Samsung is already going full force with Android; they’re not about to pivot any substantial resources into an unproven (or, more accurately, nearly-failed) platform without good reason. Bloomberg suggests that they may be considering it because of some shady restrictions that Google has in place limiting modifications of the platform… even though Google is incredibly clear about any restrictions they have, and has openly denied that any other behind-the-scenes restrictions exist. As anyone who has touched the Samsung Sidekick 4G (or the monstrosity that was the Behold II) could tell you, Samsung has been free to make plenty of changes to Android.

If HP really wants webOS to succeed in the mobile world (that is, if they bought Palm for more than just their ridiculous patent portfolio, or to shove webOS into printers and call it a day), they need to be the ones courting the manufacturers, not the other way around. They need to be going out to the LGs, the HTCs, the Samsungs — especially the Samsungs, given their flexibility, ability to scale production, and the fact that Samsung builds nearly all of their own components — and doing everything they can to convince them to build them a superphone. They need to give them webOS (with little or no licensing fees involved), in exchange for one amazing, jaw-dropping webOS phone. No keyboards with edges that destroy your thumbs (Pre 1), no crappy hinges (Pre 1, 2), no paltry outdated specs (every webOS device ever). Get that phone, launch a massive marketing campaign to clean up any tainted perception of webOS consumers may have, then consider trying to leverage licensing as if you’ve got cards worth playing.

If you build it, they will come. You just have to build it well.