The hurdles to an open source webOS | webOS Nation

The hurdles to an open source webOS 38

by Derek Kessler Sat, 10 Dec 2011 9:48 pm EST

HP has committed to going open source with all of webOS, and they'll be kicking off the process in the near future (likely early next year) with the open sourcing of the Enyo application framework. The OS itself will take more time, and HP currently plans to release it to the open source community in segments (there will be a roadmap, we've been told).

The reason for the delay is actually quite simple, but its implications could be quite broad for the open source version of webOS. The operating system as it stands today contains a number of parts that have been licensed from other parties, and HP can't go and distribute somebody else's work into the open source realm. What HP has to do is "scrub" webOS, to go through it and pick out all of the proprietary bits that they don't own and replace them with already available open source code, create their own code and distribute it as open source, or - if not vital to the operation of webOS - distribute the open source project without it.

Certainly there are plenty of under-the-hood parts that HP is going to have to replace, but there's one very obvious user-facing set of code that's going to have to be pared down, and there's not much HP can do to replace it: Synergy. Right now with a webOS device you can use Synergy to tie your photos, contacts, calendar, phone, tasks, video, documents, and messaging into AIM, YouTube, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Exchange, Skype, Photobucket, DropBox, and Yahoo!. All of those are closed source systems to which HP does not possess the rights to distribute as open source. So it's likely that the eventual open source release of webOS will not come with any Synergy services built-in.

But what it will likely come with is support for Synergy Connectors. This system was introduced with webOS 2.0 but as far as we're aware hasn't seen any public utilization. Synergy Connectors allow third parties to build their own Synergy plug-ins to integrate their services into the webOS experience on a user opt-in basis. It was a novel idea, but one that hasn't seen any traction. And open-source version of webOS would come without any Synergy Connectors built-in, but we can see a way that HP could release the current set of Google, Facebook, Skype, etc as individual closed source Synergy Connectors, enabling even webOS open source users to add their services of choice to the OS. Heck, they could even provide the option on start-up of the open source webOS to download and install user-selected Synergy Connectors.

Another stumbling block to HP going open source with webOS will be the cloud services behind it. Namely, backups and the App Catalog, plus the over-the-ar distribution of updates to webOS. HP has stated their long-term multi-year commitment to webOS as an open source project, understanding that it could take years before it gains any traction as a viable alternative to, well, anything. Part of that commitment will have to come in the form of these cloud services. But will that be a commitment to the HP-distributed version of webOS, or for the open source version? Will there be a difference? Could HP conceivably divorce the cloud services from webOS and offer backup, updates, the App Catalog, and everything else as 'third party' closed-source add-ons? Or can those go open source too?

That's the big question right now that nobody's really asking: what will an open source webOS look like? We've touched above on some of the changes that will have to be made to webOS to enable the open source future, but there are still plenty of questions left to be answered. Will HP's distribution of webOS be solely as an open source project, developed entirely in the public space with it open to code input by anybody at any time? What sort of governance structure will guide this sort system? HP can be there to be 'in charge', but to what degree?

Or will they go the Google Android route, with full versions developed behind closed doors, distributed to partners with closed source elements, and then eventually released as an open source OS, free of the proprietary bits? Then whoever wants to play with it can do so, but they'll have to sit and wait for the next version release, never knowing exactly what HP will spit out.

Open sourcing webOS could be the one thing that actually saves the OS. But it all depends on what open source webOS is going to look like. There are valid arguments for both the completely open open source model and the Android model, but we don't think that either would be a good solution for webOS. Is there a middle road to be forged, just as going open source was the middle road between making new devices and just killing webOS? Only time will tell.


webOS Synergy is part of what makes it so elegant. I'm sure HP will find a practical solution to implement this functionality.

Synergy is a home grown function of webOS. And it's already beyond Practical, it's one of the gems of webOS. No other OS has functionality that works as well as Synergy. Just ask any iOS or Android owner.

I'm an Android/webOS dual user, and I agree and disagree. If you're referring to something like the Messaging app, in which you can chat via SMS or AIM or whatever, then I agree---Android does not come with this. If you're referring to the contact syncing thing, I disagree. Android has exactly the same type of system, and there are many more "plugins" available for it.

Also, I'm not really sure the Messaging stuff should really count as Synergy. Is it possible to augment it? Can I publish an app in the Catalog that adds MyIM to the Messaging app? The magic of Synergy, to me, came with 2.0 and the ability to add third-party plugins.

I had thought webOS added messaging plugin APIs, but that it just never took off, or didn't reach release in time.

And does Android really merge Facebook/Google/etc contacts as well? My understanding was that natively it only aggregated, not merged/linked a la Synergy?

Indeed. On Sprint this month I decided to either going iOS or FrankenPre 2. Just couldn't give up Synergy at the end of the day. There's really nothing as seamless for contact integration. And that goes hand in hand with server services via backups and the Profile.

Keep it real, webOS.

Doesn't iOS also have contact syncing with other services? Android does (my contact list syncs with Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc).

As I recall, the level to which Android pulls in contacts varied by manufacturer when I glanced before, depending on their "skin." iOS pulls in contacts as well (though it doesn't pull in contact photos?).

However, the only one I saw that also collated/linked redundant contacts from different sources into one phone book entry was Synergy (and WP7?).

I may be mistaken on some of this, so please correct me if I'm wrong, folks!

When it's "WebOS Uber Allles", you turn a blind eye to progress from competitors like this and Windows Phone's awesome People hub that integrates contacts, Facebook, Twitter and other services in a way that leaves WebOS in the dust.

No need to play the fanboy card; my nod to WP7 is above. It's the only other OS that gets the contact merging aspect spot on that I know of. That would've been a contender in my choice too if only for People, but the UI isn't for me.

If Android (in general) and iOS really do merging just as well as Synergy and People can, feel free to point it out. I'd be delighted if this was finally the status quo and I'm just behind the times.

On Sprint, I went with iOS. Facebook and LinkedIn contact integration is one place where iOS falls well short of webOS's Synergy. First, there is no native way to link to either site; that means no contact pictures, even, unless you've got the pics assigned in one of your other accounts (gmail, yahoo, exchange).

Any linking must be done through the site's app. But the Facebook app can not import contact information (phone numbers, emails, addresses) for any contact for any contact who is not already a contact in one of your other address books (Gmail, Yahoo, Exchange); it can only do things like contact pictures, maybe job titles, that soft of thing. Same goes for the other apps available to help you sync things from Facebook into your iOS device. The best seems to be SmartSync, which not only doesn't do things automatically, you need to periodically go into it and tell it to "Sync now", basically.

And the LinkedIn app doesn't provide any contact import services at all.

So, since launch day, I've been carrying around a webOS device (mostly a Pre3, but also a TP) to, among other things, look up numbers when I get text messages or calls that my iPhone 4S doesn't recognize yet, just so I can then add them to the iPhone 4S...

...aggravating, is what it is.

could someone comment on the costs to create generic webOS phones? Say, the costs to create 1,000 to 10,000 phones. And is it possible to breakeven or maybe make a small profit from making a small # of phones?

thank you,


This really is NOT a problem at all. Each of those has a public API that any programmer can get access to. HP may not be able to give out their API keys (basically allowing others to access as HP). All people will have to do is get their own API key when they want to compile.

I'm not sure why one expects synergy to be a major problem. Google, aim, yahoo, exchange amonst others all use publicly available APIs (or at least can, as all supported via open source code in linux).

My understanding would be that yeah, APIs are there to access the data. How Synergy manages pulling in and collating that data in native contacts is based on licensed code.

I wonder about the future of the Touchstone technology as we move into the open source territory. While Synergy is great, other phone systems can do more or less the same although not as elegantly. The others are also catching up on multitasking. The one thing that really makes my friends envy my Pre and Pre 3, is the inductive charging. I enjoy that functionality every day, and it's a really good selling point. I hope HP finds a way to make Touchstone technology available for a reasonable fee, but exclusively for webOS phones.

I envision a future sales person: "This phone comes in two versions; with Android and webOS. The OSes work differently, but the main differences you'll notice are that Android has more apps, but the webOS phone has this really nifty wireless charger that you'll love."

Doesn't it have something to do with the Touch To Share too?

By all means. Personally I find NFC a better solution than Touch To Share since it is already widespread with wider application. Then again I might be wrong, and Touch To Share could evolve for wider use through crowd sourcing. I just hope HP find a smart way to use their hardware patents as bait to make phone makers choose to use webOS.

Touchstone technology becomes less relevant when a mobile device has better battery life. When I moved from webOS to iOS, I thought I'd miss the TS charging a lot. Reality is, battery life on my 4S is far superior to my Pre-, and I don't need to charge like I used to.

LTE/4G may reverse this, as those phones seem to also use a lot of energy. But for a 3G phone like the 4S it isn't as important.

exciting and scary, I'm hoping that internslz are real committed to webOS. I'm not sure there's enough community muscle, especially by the time this all happens, to make webOS stand out in a years time. Without phones I see demand disappearing. So who is going to startup a phone selling business that puts webOS, fully working and supported on HTC or some other brand handset? Someone With lots of cash, and a strong desire to push webOS - who will that be? HP better be committed to supporting that 'new' firm!

Maybe someone needs to get a site for the community to thrash this out (not just read and comment news) - how about it webOS nation, a dev page with the source available etc.

If need be, HP could just do something similar to how Google distributes android's google apps packages and put release synergy separately as a plugin

These aren't hurdles at all unless you assume that there are "hardware partners" just salivating to make commercial WebOS products that will generate zero profit, still have to pay Microsoft royalties for ActiveSync and other patents, and they are willing to spend the R&D to plug these OS holes.

The same ones who were gonna buy it when HP clearly put it up for sale for a song.

The same ones who were gonna to license it from HP when Leo publicly offered it since BEFORE the TP came out.

The same ones who were going to buy Palm the first time except none of them besides RIM was ever going to keep it intact.

As long as you keep believing in these mysterious, deep-pocketed companies ready to take over the world with WebOS if X or Y happened, you WILL be disappointed. If you take the open source for what it is - a nice way for fans to toy with and experiment with the property that can't be cancelled or affected by the rest of the market not caring - you will be super happy.

Them's the facts.

Nope - them's are your opinions.

Neither you nor I know for sure the details, financials and politics why the mentioned companies decided the way they did.

I don't believe in magical solutions and I don't expect a company openly declaring to manufacture webos phones any time soon.

But there is plenty of rooms between the extremes.
Android is under increasing fire (proxy attacks from Apple and MS) from patent threats.
The Moto-Gooogle Combo no doubt is under close scrutiny by the Handset Alliance, Carriers like to see competition between manufacturers and companies need ways to distinguish themselves from the competition.

For any of those and a number of additional reasons a company could very well decide to offer webos phones in the future. Especially if a compatibility layer allows Android apps to run on webos. webos UI and services combined with several hundred thousand apps could be a nice combination. Especially if Hp sets up a strong defensive patent portfolio and the manufacturer has neither to buy webos nor licence it.

Nothing is certain either way.

It's my "opinion" that every time Palm or HP made it possible for another company to license or outright buy WebOS to continue the "fight" for mobile OS supremacy, almost all of them passed for various reasons or just wanted to buy it for IP purposes?

Really? Huh.

Speaking of conjecture, the Motorola/Google acquisition happened at almost the same time as HP shuttering WebOS - 6 months ago. Not only did the two biggest Android companies with "incentive" to add WebOS (Samsung and HTC) PUBLICLY DISMISS buying the company, but they haven't formed a licensing agreement either and neither has any other Android manufacturer.

Not LG. Not Sony. Not Huawei. Not ZTE. Not Acer. Nobody. Even the ones like Dell that have tried and failed with Android and Windows Phone 7...they're just giving up. They're not throwing more good money after bad with WebOS.

For those and a number of additional reasons, this looks rather unlikely to come to pass. A "compatibility layer" is pointless. ICS ALREADY HAS cards. It ALREADY HAS the notifications that can be swiped away individually. Oh, and there's already a "Just Type"-ish field in ICS on every main homescreen by default. It's not even a widget anymore.

jerrydan, I agree with you. My mobile phone needs to be more than just a hobby - so I moved on two months ago and haven't looked back (though I still have my TP).

There have been too many opportunities for this to be moved to another company and it did not happen. HP had the ability to make this a viable third mobile OS (assuming BB in its current form continues to drop) but not the will, and no one else now has the will.

I can see this surviving on tablets, but I don't understand how webOS phones can continue. I thought carriers released OS versions set up for their networks? If so, I don't see how hobbyists can keep this going on phones.

This is a great OS - I haven't had this much fun with an OS like this in a long time - and I am sorry to see it leave mainstream. But iOS for me takes up the slack.

I don't understand why the synergy issues is seen as an issue. You can get Skype from the app catalog right now and install it as a synergy service, just do the same for all the other services.

There's a good chance that this open source idea will never get off the ground. Think about it. HP licensed those proprietary elements when they were developing webOS because it was easier to do so than to develop the code themselves. So, now that they are essentially putting webOS on the curb all of a sudden they are going to put all sorts of resources into it? Perhaps if HP was a healthy company with room for profitless non-revenue.

As jerrydan3 says, webOS will probably be something interesting for hobbyists to play around with but will always lag behind the platforms that are supported by hundreds of millions of devices. It will be the linux of mobile devices - something that you used to use once in a while on a cheap netbook but would never recommend to 95% of users.

"[Palm] licensed those proprietary elements when they were developing webOS because it was easier to do so than to develop the code themselves."

To be fair, some elements may have been licensed simply to respect others' patents and designs. You're right, though, as including any of those elements will require a push from HP and the greater dev community now.

... why wouldn't they be able to open source Palm's own code for the Synergy connectors?

Maybe the database stuff that stores it is licensed, but there are plenty of database solutions that could be implemented.

Third paragraph is simply wrong. Most synergy features are built using open APIs, with code written by Palm (or even open source already for the messaging services based on libpurple) and do not rely on source code from other parties.

-- Rod

??? hurdles? it has few "hurdles" to overcome?


it is even more dead, than it ever was. An OS without the hardware, without any real push, with a handful of devs in the community, another handful of die-hard users. Trying to reinvent itself as an option in a niche that is already firmly occupied by another Open-Source OS (for a change, a hugely popular one). Having as a backup a company, that will produce all kinds of hardware, running COMPETITION OS (who wants to bet that we will sooner see Win8 tablet from HP, then a webOS one?). A company that toook nearly two years to figure out (ooops, take it back: to still NOT figure out) what webOS is best at (freaking PHONES, you damn fools from HP!!!).

Can you imagine the absurdity of the situation like above? What kind of a "push" can webOS get from such determined/focused HQ, as it is the case of HP?

Personally, I think it is nothing more than a PR damage control by HP at the moment, they will "open source" it, and let it to rot.

They have "analysed it" from every angle, and came to a conclusion, that is the path of least resistance for _HP_. And MAYBE, they'll be able to score few points for being cool, and giving away cool stuff, in the geek circles.

But not a way for webOS to survive, that is for sure.

Well, that was one bumpy ride. As I said, not the first and not the last brilliant tech that is going to be left to rot on the technology junkyard. Sad, but it is what it is.

Who'd have thought we'd ever been in perfect agreement given our disagreements in the past?

And we are....

But again....WebOS is surviving and will do so, pretty much forever. Just as a hobbyist OS. Kinda has always been that way even when Palm and HP were giving their all. Preware and WebOS Internals defined it then.

They do so going forward.

webOS vs. Tizen?

I left WebOS in June 2010 and was laughed at. That I was going to miss the big show. Pshhhht!! I knew as soon as the Pre2 came out, that WebOS was outtie. Onlything I think post Android ICS will see more WebOS like features in it. So eventually people will forget about WebOS and focus more on Android and IOS.

I figured I'd mull over this news for a bit before commenting -- my gut-feel at the start remains the same:

- I originally felt HP would give-up & 'stop the bleeding' by now
- I'll give HP half-points for open-sourcing vs. throwing WebOS in a private trashcan.

At the end-of-the day, what I can't shake is the following: "What does HP have to gain from an open-source WebOS"? Google wins from their search business -- they have an incentive to improve Android. HP .... ????

My gut-feel: HP simply picked a public trashcan to place WebOS -- actually, more like a public curb. Yes, they're taking a bit more time to gently place it there (because they hope people will see it & pick it up) but, once it is laid-down, I fully expect HP to walk away.

On previous blog it stated "The release will happen in stages, but eventually it'll all be out."

The eventually part is the part that scares me. Everything HP has announced has taken way too much time. Their mystery debut dates and schedules never see real light. Their use of 'eventually', 'soon', 'tba' words might as well mean 'some random date in the long future'.

I just hope this time I'm wrong. That a date is set and a good 'realistic' time roadmap has been placed in order to open source all of webos in a timely viable manner.

Not readily explained in the news stories... there is a difference between F/LOSS and "Open Source".

One implies the GPL and no strings attached, but the add-ons and goodies are up to you (i.e.: want Java or Flash? It's closed source; you're free to attach it if you're willing to accept their terms, but we can't slipstream it along with your device ROM). Sure, it's a headache, but as you're all familiar with in webos-internals, the community can mitigate most of the headaches with good documentation and support.

The other has all the goodies (Java, Flash as long as Adobe's willing to support it), but it's all still HP's intellectual property, including any of your contributions to their repositories. Write code for it, and you're basically a HP Volunteer; once it makes it into SVN, HP has every right to profit off of it without paying you a dime (should webOS pick right back up).

Both has repercussions: F/LOSS means webOS will never make a penny again, the license is in perpetuity. (Of course, it doesn't mean HP can't profit. HP has a cut of the App Catalog in either scenario, just like Google owns the Android Market). Open Source Initiative (or bastardizations of it like the Microsoft Open Source License) means less people willing to contribute overall. Sure, there's little money in it either way. But with F/LOSS, there's at least recognition from your peers to some degree and the comfort that if anyone tries to sell your work that someone has your back. (Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Software Foundation, etc.)

But if it's any indication from cnet, the tech community ennui over the platform may be too much to overcome. Open Source projects can and DO fail, and when they do, it's as quiet a death that a large company can ever hope for. (Re: IBM and Apache Harmony.

The TL;DR version: The enthusiasm of the community will make or break this, for sure. But throw in all the marketing and flavor text you want, all the pathos and accolades, there's still a bullet out there that webOS can't dodge. If HP goes the Oracle/Microsoft route (i.e.: it's open source, but we still own all of it... even your additions), they have an excellent shot of deserting their own enthusiasts before the real work even begins.

Sorry, but there is a thing I can't understand about Synergy. I mean, is it propietary software, the code created to access all those services? If I study all the facebook API and create an app that access facebook, and provide functions that facebook itself don't... Does it mean I can't release it as open source?

* OR *

Does this imply that Yahoo, Facebook, Google... provided Palm and then HP with the code needed to make to Synergy and WebOS access to their services?

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