On December 9, HP ended a long period of rumors and speculation with the
that it would release the code for its webOS platform under an open-source
license. Very little information beyond that brief press release is
available, so the net has duly responded with lots more speculation. To
some, webOS is about to start a new and better life; to others, this
announcement is the last gasp of a dying product. Never one to let a prime
handwaving opportunity to pass unexploited, your editor has written some
thoughts of his own.
In many ways, the mobile device market at the end of 2011 is in far better
shape than many of us would have ever dared to hope for. Powerful handsets
running Linux are ubiquitous, relatively cheap, and, in many cases, mostly
open to hacking by their users. A great deal of creativity has been
unleashed on both the hardware and software sides, to everybody's benefit.
Linux has become the system for the bulk of these devices, and the
companies that make them are getting better at contributing their work
upstream. In many parts of the kernel, the old problem of missing hardware
support has been replaced by the problem of dealing with the massive
amounts of code contributed by manufacturers. That is, as they say, a
high-quality problem; in many ways, life is good.
Naturally, things could be better for everybody involved. The bulk of
those devices are running Android, which falls somewhat short of what many
of us would like to see in an open-source project. The direction of the
project is closely controlled by Google, source releases have been delayed
and withheld (is it truly "open source" if one cannot get the source for
the code running on one's device?), and some companies have better access
to the source than others. Manufacturers have reason to dislike depending
on Google for access, and they worry about being relegated to the commodity
side of the business. As has been written
here before, Android is a huge and valuable gift, but we can
acknowledge that gift while still wishing for something a little better.
The dominant players in this market (handsets and tablets, mainly) are
Apple's iOS and Android. The former is not available to other
manufacturers, leaving them with a single choice for their operating
software. In such a situation, there should certainly be room for another
contender. Microsoft might yet fill that space with Windows 8 Mobile,
does not have to be that way; Microsoft has always struggled in this
market. Wouldn't it be nice if another Linux-based system could establish
itself as a major mobile platform instead?
There is no shortage of alternatives in this area. Tizen announced itself as a sort of
successor to MeeGo in September, but almost nothing has been heard from
this project since. Various developers are trying to keep a MeeGo
derivative alive as a community-driven project; the resulting "Nemo"
project has made a few releases for the N900, but does not appear to be
progressing quickly. The GNOME project has its
eyes on this market with its "GNOME OS" concept based on GNOME 3;
KDE's "Plasma Active" has very similar goals. Canonical, too, has
ambitions in the mobile arena. Most of these projects have
actively been looking for manufacturers to ship their software, but there
are not a lot of high-profile results to point to thus far. Will webOS do
Those who have expressed pessimistic views certainly have their reasons for
doing so. As noted above, Linux-based mobile platforms are not in
especially short supply; webOS is a late addition to a crowded field.
Given the time that has passed since HP abandoned its webOS plans
and the rumors that went around, it seems certain that HP tried,
unsuccessfully, to find a buyer for webOS before deciding to open-source
it. If nobody wanted to own the system before, what are the chances that
they will want to use an open-source version in the future?
That said, webOS is a system with a history of shipping in real products
and with a core of enthusiastic users; the alternatives have neither of
those. Given code, developers, users, and space in the market, it should
for a system like webOS to establish itself and prosper. Getting there,
though, will depend on a number of things.
One of those, obviously, is the code itself. Is the quality of the code such that
the community can pick it up and carry it forward without a huge amount of
cleanup work? Will all of the code be released, or will it be
necessary to find or create alternatives for pieces that have been
withheld? And, crucially, how long will it take for the code to appear?
Every day that passes between now and the code release will decrease the
relevance of the whole exercise. If HP wants webOS to succeed, it needs to
get the code out there quickly.
Then, there is the quality of HP's management of the project. The press
release promises "good, transparent and inclusive governance to avoid
fragmentation," which can mean almost anything. "Avoid
fragmentation," alas, is often a euphemism for "maintain a firm grip on the
project and where it can go." If, instead, HP were to create a structure
that gave up some control and showed faith in the community it hopes to
build, it could find itself with a crowd of enthusiastic contributors.
That said, HP needs to remain at the forefront of that crowd for some time;
it will be hard to convince others to contribute to webOS if HP stops doing
so. Licensing, too, is a clear concern; some licenses are rather more
attractive to contributors than others. HP has not yet said which license
it will use, or whether copyright assignments will be required to
contribute to the project.
Finally, the code is of limited interest without useful devices to run it
on. Google has made a point of ensuring the existence of unlocked devices
and making it easy for developers to get their hands on those devices. HP
would be wise to emulate this example if it wants to developers to hack on
- and improve - the code.
In summary: webOS has a real chance as an open-source project if HP manages
things correctly and gets the code out there quickly. There is an existing
code base, room in the market, a desire for alternatives, and a group of
ready customers. That is far more than most projects have at their
launch. The open-source version of webOS has a hard road ahead of it with
many challenges to overcome but, with some luck and careful management,
there is a real possibility for interesting things to happen.
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