Okay HP, Let’s Make Some Lemonade

This morning, HP admitted failure.

After spending $1.2 billion to acquire Palm, they announced that they were killing off the development of all smartphones and tablets running Palm’s webOS platform — including the just launched TouchPad. Having survived for just 49 days before its death, it’s tragic that TouchPad lived just one day longer than the oft-mocked Microsoft Kin.

webOS itself, as a platform, isn’t entirely dead. HP says they’ll “continue to explore options to optimize the value of webOS”, which is really just a fancy way of saying “Yeah, we’re still not entirely sure what the hell we’re going to do with this thing.”

There’s a way out here, HP — and it’s all thanks to Google’s acquisition of Motorola.

You see, Google’s surprise $12.5 billion buy-out of Motorola has undoubtedly left Android’s other, non-Motorola partners (Samsung, HTC, LG, etc.) a bit… shaken up. In the blink of an eye, Google went from having what was essentially 0% of the hardware marketshare for their own operating system up to a domineering 30%. Out of nowhere, Google went from being the nice guy who builds all the software for free to something resembling a direct competitor. Google insists that Motorola will operate as a separate entity — but at the very least, they’ll be able to sneakily leverage Motorola to influence Android’s hardware ecosystem as a whole.

But where else are Android’s other partners to turn? Windows Phone 7? Great! Lets keep throwing licensing money at Microsoft. They only completely screwed up by sticking with Windows Mobile 6.5 for far too long, launched Windows Phone 7 way too late in the game whilst simultaneously way too early in its own development, inexplicably tried (and failed) to launch the Kin platform at the same time, and have been dickishly throwing a wrench in the Mobile world’s gears by demanding patent licensing money from anyone who finds any success with Android.

Here’s your move, HP: Fill the gap that Google has just left open.

  • 1) Open webOS:

    Share webOS’ source code. Bits of webOS are already available under a GPL license, but it’s time to open the rest as much as possible. Perhaps not with everyone — at least not at first, as suddenly sharing a mountain of once-closed source would be a great way to totally bone all of the existing, unlikely-to-be-updated webOS devices currently floating around out there

  • 2) Give It Away. For free. But only to those willing to help make it better:

    With Android’s popularity and free-except-for-patent-licensing price tag and Windows Phone 7 floating around as an alternative, webOS licenses would be a rather hard sell. That’s why HP needs to just give it away — but only to those willing to improve it. webOS is, in many ways, kind of amazing. It’s ridiculously user-friendly, the notifications/alerts system is top notch, and it’s undeniably one of the most beautiful operating systems ever created… but it has its faults. Among other things, it doesn’t seem to be terribly efficient; even Palm could never seem to make a device on which webOS ran better than a 4-year old with bricks tied to his feet. Furthermore, Palm just could never allot the resources to properly build out webOS for third-party development; it lacks much in the pre-provided functionality front (read: APIs), and that which is there could really do with better documentation.

    And that’s where the trade comes in. Willing to make substantial improvements to webOS? You get a webOS! And you get a webOS! And you get a webOS! Not willing (or don’t have the man-power) to commit to improvements? No sweat — you can still license webOS on the cheap.

    The definition of “substantial improvements” as well as the definition of “cheap” would have to vary based on company size/revenue, but anything is better than HP trying to tackle webOS alone. Palm’s best engineers took off when the buyout went down, and HP has never proven themselves capable at making software.

  • 3) Promise to never set foot in the smartphone/tablet arena again:

    This part is key. Be the hands-off, no-competition software provider that Google has decided they don’t want to be anymore. Throw webOS into printers, cars, toasters, whatever, but just let the guys who know what they’re doing in mobile do their thing.

  • 4) Form a foundation to guide the overall product:

    More cooks in the kitchen can just make things worse — and that’s why there needs to be a foundation of sorts (separate from HP) formed amongst the largest contributors to act as a guiding hand for the product’s future. Major contributors get to discuss and steer the future of the product. And if one wants to do build something into the project that the majority veto? No problem — they’ll just have to build it into their own branch. Think of it sort of like Nokia (et al.)’s Symbian foundation, minus the suck.

Will it earn HP back the $1.2 billion they spent on Palm? Nope! But they still have Palm’s patent armory to show for that. Will it score webOS the throne as the #1 or #2 platform in the mobile world? Nope! iOS and Android have that locked down for the next few years , and there’s very little that could change that — but it does make it a viable contender against WP7 for that coveted bronze medal. It also makes the platform a whole lot more viable to third-party developers, if only because it would boost the number of purchased webOS devices above.. like, twelve.

HP ends up with a better webOS, and they avoid looking like they’ve completely wrecked the platform. Partners get a platform — and one with quite a lot of potential — in exchange for allotting manpower they’d already have to allot if they were to explore it in the first place, and they get to help steer its future to boot. Developers get a third platform worth developing for. (Oh, and, in some sense, it makes a licensed webOS more defensible against patent attacks, because of all the major players that had an official hand in its development.)

It’s not a resounding victory, but it’s probably HP’s best move at this point.