webOS Open Source

I wasn’t planning to weigh in on HP deciding to open up webOS, cause like I’ve said before tectonic shifts with little short-term impact aren’t really that important to startups. However, I’ve been doing open source stuff for a whole lot longer than I’ve been doing mobile stuff, so I have some particularly strong feelings on this one. And since I’ve already thrown my snarky knee-jerk response out there, I should probably be quasi-serious for a few minutes and try to help out. I don’t have much free time though, so this is going to be short – which usually ends up being somewhat smartass at points.

First off it’s necessary to understand how businessy folks view open source. I have no idea how many of you who read this blog were around for it, but this was a huge raging debate in the early 2000s. How could it possibly make sense for a company to just give away something that it had sunk a huge number of hours into, and potentially represented some significant chunks of intellectual property? The argument that really won the day centered on a concept called commoditizing your compliments. See this blog posting from Joel Spolsky for a bit of background on the economic principle. In terms of software it means giving away the stuff that won’t make you much money so you can make more money on the stuff with good margins. If anyone out there can make an alternative argument for why HP would open up the OS have at it. But I’m going to stick with the assumption that they’re positioning for a market shift in which the stewardship of the mobile OS itself is a commoditized low-value position.

So what’s the complement of a ‘platform designed from the ground up to be mobile, cloud-connected and scalable‘? Traditionally hardware has been the mainstay for HP. And it would make a kind of sense if they were looking to open up the OS and have folks integrate their own platform components in order to be able to make more hardware work together. They could be looking at the suite of iPad, iPhone, Apple TV, and iTunes and be thinking “Uh oh, Apple is starting to lock up the whole electronics space though integrated media components.” Which means if they want to keep playing in those markets they have to be able to catalyze a similarly optimized delivery channel if they want to keep a seat at the table. Possible. But I don’t think it’s the most likely one.

Another complement to webOS would be the stuff sitting on the other side, the cloud-connected part. That end would certainly line up with the software is eating the world idea that Marc (one of their board members) has been putting forth. Plus, it’s generally a bad idea to attack someone head-on when they’re in the kind of position of power that Apple is in. You try to look down the line to where their model extends and try to find a weakness. And while Apple has been fantastic on the merchandising side of the iTunes/App Store world, generally speaking their efforts to expand their cloud service offerings have fallen flat. If I were backed into a corner and forced to try to find a gap in the armor when competing with Apple, it’s the place I would go.

Since the full webOS stack is actually Linux under the hood, I assume it has an opportunity to capture a chunk of the Linux embedded system market the same was as Android has. As someone who spent way more time than I care to remember configuring and rebuilding Midori systems, I assume the more we can do on that part of the market the better. My fear though is that this opening of the platform is really just an attempt to try to get some free development. I’m sure that the folks involved at the top (like Marc) genuinely have a vision for everyone benefitting from opening up webOS, however it’s really easy to spoil an open source community down in the details even if your heart is in the right place.

If I put my rose colored glasses on and try to look into the future for webOS I see a future where the inherently web-connected OS manages to pull us out of this siloed mobile experience we’ve ended up in. It takes the best of what we’ve learned about putting services together as “apps” and reapplies that to the open web distribution model, and mixes in the deep platform capabilities from Android (for instance, I can write an app that accesses call log info. iOS GAH!).

However, to end up at that future we need an awesome technical platform AND distribution power. Products don’t win in market just for being the most technically awesome hacks. Otherwise we would all still be running BeOS today ;-) Unless there are a bunch of devices out in market running webOS it doesn’t make sense for third party developers to target the platform. And without a bunch of third party developers to write apps it’s hard to get a bunch of devices out into market (no one wants a phone without apps any more). So while I see a lot of awesome stuff that webOS COULD be, I still don’t see an obvious way to take it from where it is to where it needs to be. I don’t disagree with the open sourcing of the platform in general. It may be the right step along a roadmap. But because I have no idea what that roadmap is, I remain underwhelmed.

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