Decoding open source for webOS and beyond | webOS Nation
 
 

Decoding open source for webOS and beyond 43

by Jonathan I Ezor#IM Tue, 13 Dec 2011 12:09 pm EST

Now that HP has decided (for now) to keep webOS alive while converting it to an open source operating system, we thought it might be helpful to help explain what open source software is (and isn’t) and how being open source might impact on webOS’ future.

What is “Open Source” anyway?

Most software is written as source code, using programming languages with specific syntax, commands, etc. that can be written and understood by humans. Often, especially for commercially sold programs, that source code is compiled into object code, distilled down into the binary instructions for the computer, while the original source code is kept secret and “closed” by the developer so that competitors and customers may not change or copy its coding. (Some programming doesn’t end up as object code; the HTML, CSS and Javascript that are the basis for many webOS applications don’t, for example.) Other developers may choose to keep their source code “open,” sharing it with the broader community for improvement, customization, error-checking and other reasons. Some software began life as open source (e.g. the Linux operating system used by Palm for webOS; the Firefox web browser; Open Office); other programs remain closed source for their entire useful life. Very rarely, the owner of a closed-source software product may decide to convert it to open source as HP has announced it is doing with webOS.

Gratis vs. Libre, Free Beer vs. Free Speech, and Copyright vs. Copyleft

Open source software is frequently referred to as “free” software, which can be confusing at least in English, since free can refer to zero cost or zero restriction. The distinction is often discussed as the difference between “gratis” (no cost) or “libre” (no  restrictions), or more simply “free beer” as compared to “free speech.” In fact, open source may be neither.

Remember that software, whether open or closed source, is still automatically protected by copyright law (and may be protected under patent and/or trademark law too, but that’s another discussion entirely). The owner of the copyright (the creator or sometimes the party paying for the development) gets to choose how much or how little it will restrict others from using, copying, modifying, distributing, and doing the other activities covered by copyright. The owner may choose to hide the source code and charge huge amounts for a license to use the software, or open the source and charge nothing, or some combination. Only when no one owns the copyright (either because the owner gives it up, enough time has passed, or the work was created by the U.S. government and by law cannot be copyrighted) is a work truly libre, in the so-called public domain. Otherwise, you have to look to the terms of the license to figure out what the copyright holder does and doesn’t permit others to do with the software. For example, the Free Software Foundation’s description of its “copyleft” licensing makes it clear that while FSF intends to grant tremendously broad permission to users with regard to redistribution and changing of its software, it retains copyright ownership rather than contributing the software to the public domain in order to preserve this grant of rights.

In fact, there are many kinds of open source licenses out there. The Open Source Initiative provides a good listing of the major ones, their features, and their differences. One fairly consistent element is that anyone that distributes the software covered by an open source license, even if the software is modified, must continue to make the source code openly available. Other common feature is that the license stays with the code even if it is included in something else, and may cause the rest of the product into which the open source code is incorporated to become open source as well, whether or not the product was intended to be proprietary and closed. (Linksys in the U.S. and Telstra in Australia found this out the hard way.)

Beyond that, the licenses can vary widely. When webOS Internals created the standards for its patch feeds, it required any developer seeking to distribute a patch through Preware to do so under the MIT open source license, which permits third parties to incorporate the code even into commercial products as long as it remains open source. webOS Internals chose this license in part to enable Palm/HP to include particularly useful patches into the official webOS distribution, something that in fact did subsequently happen. Homebrew apps, though, may be either open or closed source, with particular license terms depending on the developer’s preferences.

While HP has committed itself to converting webOS into a fully open source operating system, it has not yet announced which open source license model it will utilize. The choice will reveal much about the internal thinking at HP about webOS’ future.

Wasn’t webOS already open source?

Part of the confusion surrounding HP’s decision arises from the belief that webOS was already open source. In fact, it was, but only partially. Much of webOS has always been open source: it is built on the Linux operating system, and Palm (and HP) have been diligent in publishing the source code for the different versions of webOS as they have been released. There were, however, elements of webOS that remained closed and proprietary, including the hardware control layer, some third party bundled apps, and others. As a result, purists argue webOS was not open source, while supporters and developers countered that it was much more open in both code and permitted customization (especially given the blessing Palm/HP gave homebrew) than its closest competitors such as iOS.

With the shift to full open source status for webOS, HP will (as Derek wrote recently) need to replace the closed source portions of the operating system with open source code that serves the same functions (and likely will eliminate some of the third party applications whose publishers may not want to release them as open source). How quickly this will happen, and how much functionality is impacted by the shift, are two of the major mysteries about HP’s new direction.

However HP moves on the open source path, remember that copyright law remains in effect for developers and users alike, both for webOS and any apps and content running within it. The “Real World Copyright for Developers” session from the November 2010 webOS Developer Day event may be of value in understanding some of the key general copyright issues.

What will an open source webOS mean for homebrew?

In the near term, the conversion of webOS to a fully open source platform will be a phenomenal boost for the homebrew community, since it will further extend the possibilities for app functionality and patching. (The webOS launcher for one, which was converted from patchable open source code to compiled and closed binary with versions 2.x/3.x, will return to customizability once it is open sourced.) Longer term, though, the picture is less clear. If other hardware manufacturers adopt and modify webOS in divergent enough ways, we could see fragmentation similar to what the Android community has faced, where apps and patches work (or don’t) depending on the particular iteration of webOS on which they are installed. An expansion of webOS to other devices and manufacturers might also increase the market for developers who already have deep understanding of webOS coding and customizing. As with the other issues raised in this piece, it’s simply too early to tell.

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43 Comments

Nicely informative. I'll take a free beer.

Jonathan, Thank you for this very informative article.

Good and educative information. The problem is that with lack of hardware devices in the pipeline, it will be difficult to hold users. There needs to be some announcement on hardware (phone or tablet) by some manufacturer soon, otherwise customers will flock to what is current. For example, my contract is ending in few months, and even though I like WebOS, as there is no WebOS product in the pipeline, I will most likely move to a new phone (hardware platform). Open source may be theoretically fine, but practically it is a long haul for which customers will not wait.

So we've gone from waiting for Palm or HP to announce new hardware to waiting for ANYONE to announce new hardware. This seems, at the same time, open for all sorts of possibilities and completely devoid of likely scenarios. You're waiting for an announcement but you don't know if or who will be doing the announcement or what it will be.

You've hit the nail on the head inertia1. If no one picks this up and announces a device that will use it, what good is any work that is done?

I'm sure there will be tons of rumors abounding (can't believe there hasn't been at least three on the main page already), but who would be willing to pick up and develop a device for an OS that two manufacturers have already failed with?

Tina Turner has a question about that.

Don't underestimate the number Android 2.1 knockoffs that were pretty big last year. I know everyone would love to hear that Sony or HTC is coming out with something, but it's possible that it doesn't happen.

However, I imagine that some of those knock-offs will use WebOS and that the hardware in them may soon (6-9 months or so?) approach what the current TouchPad can do.

I'd love for a flagship device, but I can be quite productive with webOS on what will be increasingly cheaper and cheaper hardware.

I'm new to WebOS via a $99 Touchpad purchased during the initial fire sale. Glad to see it is still alive but concerned for all the obvious reasons. HP/Meg saying they will wait until at least 2013 to produce a new WebOS-based tablet means they want to see how it does in 2012, which kind of creates a catch-22/vicious circle that it may not survive. For tablets, WebOS is so much better than Android. Hoping some company sees this and can make good use of it.

To me -- HP announcing this plan for webOS tablets in 2013 has done more harm than good. They have effectively frozen the market yet again. Why would a manufacturer want to put skin in the game when HP is going to come in and be a potentially huge competitor in a year.

Android can support many manufacturers competing against one another just by the sheer massive numbers of devices that are sold on a daily basis. Without that massive market to demand devices, knowing there is a large competitor coming might just keep any serious manufacturer out of the game.

Well, Meg is trying to be honest about their intentions. If webOS thrives, HP will go back in and try to make back some of its investments. If HP swears off any webos devices then they should just shut down webOS. At least HP has walked away from phones. I would hope htc, lg or lower tier develoeprs are looking at their android devices and try to run webOS on them so this could happen quickly since HP moves so slowly....Some manufacturers may be willing to make an webos device just not risk the billions to assume responsibility for the whole webos.

Essentially what Meg is stating is that HP is a hardware company with no interest or appetite for software. They will build hardware for any operating system that someone else develops like Microsoft, Linux, or WebOS (once it becomes a success through open source). They are not software risk takers. On the other hand, for WebOS, it is not easy to get customers back when they move to another platform. Without compatible hardware, WebOS as a platform is essentially dead for the time being.

I don't think HP officially said that they were going to make webOS tablets in 2013. Didn't they update that to say that it was the earliest they could likely do it because they'd have to get the hardware people back and put all the infrastructure back in place.

Wow and big thumbs up and thank you! Sorli...

Is this area of law going to be on the Bar Exam?!

Nope, but I am teaching Licensing IP this coming semester... :) {Jonathan}

Personally, I know a few people that would switch to webOS with the advent of a soft voip phone. This can only benefit everyone.

When I see the lawsuits going on over here in Germany: Motorola against Apple, Apple against Samsung regarding the use or "abuse" of patents, I think this strategy of HP will pay out at the end: use the input of the homebrew community to improve webOS to something much better. We all know about the bits and pieces missing in the daily use. So why not give it to the public and then let them "do the work" to invent / improve, etc. ? And HP in the meantime can work on the underlying hardware. And then in 2013, voilà!

I like how "the public" will do in 12-18 months what the combined engineers of Palm and "the largest technology company in the world" could not in THREE CUMULATIVE YEARS with untold hundreds of millions spent on R&D.

I wonder why all OSes aren't open source given this sort of public software engineering core goldmine? Seems like money's wasted hiring the Duartes of the world.

"haters are gonna hate", it must be tough to wake up in the morning as one !!! Very good article, thank you. MEG's news last week has a good timing --- it allows OEM's to put into next year's goals equipment delivery that have webOS . . . I just hope that there is a phone in that list ;)

Probably the same OEMs that HP tried to sell WebOS to....and they all refused to buy OR license it for, what, 6 months now?

But yeah....now that it's open source and they can't get any of the app revenue, get ready for the flood, boys!

First up, the C40....I mean, as long as we're talking unicorns.....

I have to agree. It is painful to watch this community trying to put a positive spin on every boneheaded move by this company regarding wOS. The only people who could produce something with this software are the people who wouldn't buy or license it in the first place. In other words only the people who are not willing to commit to it can afford to even get into the game. By definition, the only ones who can produce hardware for it are those who don't believe in it.

The rest are just dabblers. WebOS: the system for dabblers. How do you sell that to the public?

"If you love elegant, integrated products, but hate Apple; if you love to tinker with the minutia but hate Google; if you want something new, decent, and affordable but hate MS; if you are just not into tech and think that large, well-funded companies are all evil, give WebOS a try. It is guaranteed to be made by a company that cares about it as little as you do!"

Can you imagine the discussions that took place?

HP: Hello Mr/Ms HTC -- we have a deal for you, for $750 million we will sell you webOS and the patents that we bought from Palm for $1.2B.

HTC: Um, didn't you just quit making devices for this OS because it was unprofitable?

HP: Well, sure it was for us. But, I'm sure you could make it work!

HTC: No thank you.

HP: Would you pay $500 million?

HTC: We wouldn't touch it even if it were free.

HP: Hey -- there's an idea...

Thanks for my best laugh of the day. :D:D:D

both "just another point of view" and mikey47 are speaking from a point of view of someone who doesn't have a webOS device.

you would have to pry my sprint pre from my cold dead hands -and its not because of the hardware! although i do like having the keyboard.

anyone who has actually tried webOS (including those now on android and IOS) are still hoping for a day that they can have an equivalent device with webOS on it

My point of view

LOL at this.

On my 4-line family plan, we've been through 12 Palm Pres dating back to the launch date. They all had issues/defects. We stopped getting them replaced, not because we finally got good ones, but because we got tired of spending so much time at the Sprint store. When the time came, three of the four lines were upgraded to a better platform and the final one will be upgraded "in the coming weeks". I can assure you that not everyone who has tried webOS will be back or are waiting for anything webOS related.

webOS on better hardware is still not good enough for us. It's still not optimized. There is no webOS ecosystem that fits our needs.

The truth of the matter is, many of us who have truly used this platform, developed for this platform, evangelized this platform to the masses, etc., simply won't be back.

-- Yet another point of view

i can see your point about the hardware (but i think i mentioned that already). However, i can't even imagine having to plug in my device anymore since having 5 touchstones (1 in my car as a mount/charger) and a touchstone 2 for my touchpad.
Also the hardware did get better after the original pre -a lot less physical issues with the pre 2 I'm sure.

But better platform? you must be talking about iPhones which took years to be polished -but still don't possess what i like about webOS

i know you can't be talking about android -because then i would have to ask which one of the 100 different fragmented (possibly unsupported) versions of android you have.

Windows? do i have to even say it? i think they are still working on "optimization"

my launch day pre works great -i have everything i need -my touchpad works great -love the email app-love smart office -no problems with polish there.
perhaps its because i have home-brewed my phone and touchpad to be more polished but there are just way too many things that i would miss about webOS -i think this polish takes time and i think now that it is open sourced -thats exactly what we will see.

I do miss the Touchstone (brilliant way to charge a phone), but not nearly enough to give up all that these other platforms offer.

I used Android for a little over a year as my primary device (HTC EVO). You know what? It worked just fine (so well in fact that I didn't bother rooting it until I had it for a year). There was so much I could do with it that I couldn't do with my Pre (because of webOS, not only because of hardware). Yes, Android is a better platform than webOS. It is better supported. The ecosystem is much more vibrant. I was able to get the apps AND accessories that fit my needs more than I ever could with webOS.

Most of my family is on iOS now (myself included). Guess what? It works brilliantly. There are so much we can do with it that we couldn't do with our webOS devices. Again, not only because of hardware, there are many practical limitations to webOS. The ecosystem is much more vibrant. Apps and accessories for our needs are not a problem.

I don't have any personal experience with Window Phone 7, but my colleges who use it as their primary device haven't complained about much. The techie ones give it very high praise.

I, like most consumers, don't really care how long it took to polish something. What we tend to care about is whether it works well and fits our need "NOW". By the way, in my ~20 years in IT, I have yet to see "open source" give a high level of polish unless it is backed by giants.

Here's a small list of things (in no particular order) that I was able to do with these "better platforms" that I couldn't do with webOS.

* Netflix

* Hulu

* In a pinch one day, I needed to measure a rectangular area of my back yard for a contractor, I downloaded an app, stood at one end of the yard and simply pointed the phone to the other end and got the length. Did the same thing for the width. Free app and it saved me the time and cost of driving to HomeDepot to pickup a measuring wheel.

* I bike/run/walk quite often. My phone can not only do the simple GPS-based distance monitoring that most phones have apps for, it also interfaces with my ANT+ devices so I can get realtime cadance, speed (more accurate than GPS) and hear rate information.

* Rather than multitask apps with cards (very nice webOS implementation by the way), I can multitask LIFE (both apps AND non-phone activities) with my voice. For example, while exercising, I can listen to and respond to emails, messages, etc. all without touching my phone.

* I don't have to hack the device to get basic functionality (which is very handy since I'm the only techie in the family).

* I can start a movie on my device and push it to my TV without using cables.

* I can play music on my device and push it wirelessly to different speakers in my home.

* I can control my home's alarm system from my device.

* I can control my home's thermostat from my device.

* I can stream content from my DVR to my device anywhere in the world without any hacks.

Really, this list goes on and on.

You could have saved yourself a lot of typing and just said apps, but I guess everyone is already aware of that and your comment wouldn’t seem to have as much validity.

No Sir/Madam. Some of the things listed above require OS level and hardware enhancements; voice control, ANT+, NFC, better camera for example.

It's easy to pretend that apps are all that webOS lacks. However, it is far from the truth.

Also, don't be so sure I had to "type" all of that. Just saying.

My apologies I must have overlooked Siri, a better camera( which I think is hardware) and I didn’t realize the iphone included an Ant+ chip ( I thought you had to buy an adapter and run an app for that).

On the Ant+ thing, simply buying an adapter won't work if the OS does not support it (again, some things require OS-level changes). And yes, Siri is great, but Android also has voice actions which are deeply integrated into the OS.

This is why my post talked about "ecosystems" including "apps AND accessories" before I got to the list of examples.

The funny thing is HP realized this. They talked about making webOS devices "the central point" for your connected products. What they've talked about (which came across as new to many webOS fans) have been in existence for quite some time on these "better platforms".

Truth is, my "phone" stopped being "just a phone" since I bought my first Treo years ago. Today, my phone is my watch, phone, camera, camcorder, music player, gps navigator, scanner, fitness tracker, PIM, e-reader, fax machine, game console, movie player, a measuring tool, a diagnostic tool for my car, a radar detector, a TV remote, a drone controller, a language translator, and on and on. It's my computer when I'm not at my desk, a toy when I'm at play and many things in between.

Supporting all of that takes an established and growing ecosystem, not just "talk" from an HP exec.

"100 different fragmented (possibly unsupported) version of android".

Boy -- do you have a LOT to learn. You realize now that HP is moving to open source webOS that this is the **GOAL** of webOS right?

Let's say the wildest dreams of open sourcing webOS come true and HTC, Samsung, Motorola, Sony, LG....heck everyone starts building webOS devices. Do your REALLY think they are all going to live off the same branch of the open sourced webOS tree? Not in a million years. They will each branch off and customize -- just like they have done with Android. But, since it is open source they have to contribute their source code back -- so teams like CyanogenMod can make their own ROMs. Fragmentation is inevitable with success.

Everyone around these parts have been ragging and ragging on fragmentation for android -- now they will WANT fragmentation, they will look at Android with "fragmentation envy"!!!

And in case you still don't get it, if there is no fragmentation in webOS -- it is DEAD.

Well, Sprint pried my cold dead Pre- from my warm lively hands too many times. It was obvious to me that Sprint was divorcing from webOS and I had more allegiance to Sprint than I did webOS.

I was not ecstatic about moving to Android, but neither did I fear it. I am just as productive on my Evo as I was on my Pre-.

Would I like to see a webOS device from a manufacturer (not just webOS slapped onto some device)? You bet!! Would I automatically move to that when my current contract would be up? No way. Just like anything else I would investigate and determine what is best for my needs.

"HTC: Um, didn't you just quit making devices for this OS because it was unprofitable?"

Actual response:

HP: Yes, we released one phone, the Veer. Don't know why it didn't sell, so u should blame the OS. Every1 I know loves fat small slider smartphones with tiny screens. Also ran a killer twitter marketing campaign.
Then we forced the OS onto a tablet since we didn't think phones mattered (printers and tablets yall!), rushed a million of them into stores before it was polished, and expected to sell them out in a few weeks, when we knew that the most successful ipad competitors barely sold a 100,000 the entire year. We were sooo smart huh?

When all this was going on, all I read around these parts was that these were soft launches and certainly - nay, SURELY - a multibillion dollar corporation knew what they were doing moreso than plebs on these forums.

"haters gonna hate" is a hater magnet, they all replied.

Firefox did not start as a purely open-source project. It was a fork of Netscape Mozilla, which was based off Navigator, which AOL stupidly stopped funding after getting cold feet (HP-style) attempting to compete with unstoppable Microsoft Internet Explorer. That's after they rushed out an unfinished version of the software (touchpad-style) to horrible reviews.

Talk about Monday morning Quarterbacking... Everyone in WebOS land thought the HPiPad and Veer were great ideas. All HP heard from the fan-base was that they were on the right track. Y'all thought that aping the iPad appearance and price was good strategy. In fact, no one around here would admit that the TP was not fully baked. It was practically perfect at release, way better than the iFad. HP did exactly what this group wanted, and lost their shirt in the process. Now, you are cheering them on again. Wow!

Well, like Jon06064 above, these are the same people that claim that a launch day Pre - a 2009 phone that was a commercial failure and hasn't been officially updated in eons - gives them "everything they need" heading into 2012.

Not the most credible group.

If you start this discussion from the perspective that WebOS is the best and most advanced OS and that it's EVERYBODY ELSE's fault (e.g. the manufacturers, Palm, HP, the carriers, retailers....whatever) that it has failed spectacularly, then there's nothing else to say and nothing will change.

At some point after a certain number of calamities happen in a given situation, you have to identify the common thread as the most likely cause. In this case, it's WebOS.

So keeping track of the "just wait until..." statements (that started at CES '09):

Just wait until...

* the launch in the first half
* the developer program comes out of "early access"
* the app catalog comes out of beta
* the app catalog goes international
* the Verizon launch
* the AT&T launch
* the scary chick is dropped for better commercials
* the Eos...uhm...pixe
* the "plusses"
* the PDK is released
* hybrid apps are allowed
* palm gets more money
* pre 2 comes out
* Enyo (face)
* HP applies its size and scale
* for the hardware (which is so good "even defectors will come back")
* a screwdriver is used to hold open the window of opportunity
* Feb 9th 2011 announcement
* small, medium, large hits the world
* Gaga fans get exposed to this wonderful OS
* Pac-man fans get exposed to this wonderful OS
* people realize their #phonestobig
* TP launch (soft)
* TP re-launch (part deux)
* TP sales
* TP firesale
* (insert rumored company name here 5 or 10 times) buys webOS
* the WORLD steps in to help because it is open source now.

Did I miss anything?

That about covers it except for waiting for HP to apply their discounts and retail voodoo to get this stuff moving for the holidays and back-to-school - thereby justifying the brilliant $499 price point defended by this very site (and of course, criticized later). Read that quite a few times.

the Borg comes to mind :/