Not with a bang but a whimper
This morning it was revealed that HP is selling its webOS assets to LG - including the source code, personnel, and patents - and that LG intends to utilize those assets to deliver a webOS-powered smart TV in early 2014. LG has no ambitions or intentions to bring webOS to their mobile space as they're perfectly happy with all of the work they've put into Android over the past few years. To be frank, we would have been more than pleasantly surprised to see anybody take up the mantle of mobile webOS development.
And so, the final chapter of mobile webOS began to draw to a close. There's always the work that the fine folks at WebOS Ports are doing bringing Open webOS to devices like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Asus Nexus 7, but as we've been saying since the full release of Open webOS 1.0 back in September, the open source release is missing a lot in the way of deep features. While Open webOS Professional Edition was supposed to fix that, at this point the only point we can expect to see Professional Edition is in January 2014 when it's running in some form on an LG television at CES.
The team at Palm and HP needed hundreds more working to bring webOS up-to-snuff feature-for-feature with the competition. It's simply wishful thinking to expect that WebOS Ports of any other webOS homebrew project will be able to produce a fully workable port of Open webOS that any sane person would be willing to use as their primary smartphone or tablet.
Moreso than HP abandoning webOS for Android, this purchase of all webOS assets by LG represents a significant turning point for this webOS community. Palm and webOS have changed hands so many times it's boggling to think about - in just the past four years, Palm saw a major cash infusion from Elevation Partners, launched a new mobile platform, got bought by HP, launched their first tablet, saw that tablet get brutally canceled, was split in two, shopped around, open sourced, and now sold to Korean electronics giant LG.
With LG offering no relief to those craving new webOS hardware, it's time to consider more seriously that this may very well be the end for webOS as we know it. There's no guarantee that webOS on LG TVs will have multitasking cards or rich notifications or universal search or Synergy data unification or any of the much-lauded features that made webOS the operating system that we can't help but adore. We've been suckers for webOS for over four years now, and that's not about to change. No matter what happens in the coming years, webOS will always occupy a significant portion of our gadget nostalgia.
There's still the question of what's going to happen to all of us and our current webOS devices. For one, it's not going to just stop working today or tomorrow or whenever LG takes over the Sunnyvale offices from HP. LG has committed to continuing support for HP webOS devices, though one does have to wonder how long they'll be willing to provide support for products they didn't sell. The last webOS hardware sales were part of the TouchPad fire sale following that abrupt cancellation took place in December 2011, the minimum we'd expect LG to offer support for HP webOS devices is two years, so by the end of this year we wouldn't be surprised to see LG shutting that down and moving on their their then-soon-to-be-unveiled smart TV. But we would be pleased to see LG continue to support webOS owners part December 2013.
Now, you might be asking yourself, why isn't LG just taking the open source version of Open webOS and making it their own? For one, as noted earlier in this editorial, there's a lot that was part of webOS that didn't make it into Open webOS 1.0, mostly thanks to the fact that distributing somebody else's proprietary code into open source tends not to go over well. In addition to snapping up the source code for webOS and all that it entails, LG's also picked up the talented people that are still at the webOS Global Business Unit/Gram and will have them working over the next year on bringing webOS to their television line-up in time for CES 2014. We don't doubt that LG looked at using the open source version of Open webOS or licensing Open webOS Professional Edition from HP, but in the end they realized the need for control as well as the costs they would have to incur over the long-haul in building out webOS. By purchasing webOS, the patents, and the people, LG is gaining a significant base to build off of for their smart TV endeavours.
As far as those patents are concerned, LG also just purchased a significant defensive - or offensive - position in the ongoing patent war that has consumed the mobile space. Palm was a pioneering force in smartphones and held many foundational mobile and smartphone patents that were significant enough to hold off potential courtroom challengers. LG too has been in the mobile space for some time, though their serious entry into smartphones came later than Palm's. LG hasn't been as consumed by others in the mobile industry by patent lawsuits, though they've had their fair share of courtroom appearances. Owning the significant Palm and webOS patent portfolio will serve to bolster LG's case should they be forced to or opt to use them.
Our sources indicated that LG's been interested in webOS for some time. They were one of the parties that considered purchasing purchasing webOS when HP was trying to sell it, though it seems that they and everybody else may have balked at the price tag and conditions HP tried to put on the sale. LG's been working with HP since at least March of 2012, and while we haven't been able to confirm a price for the sale of webOS to LG, it stands to reason that it is a much lower cost than the $1.2 billion HP paid for Palm and wanted to get out of it. The final price isn't likely to put much of a dent in the $3.3 billion loss that HP reported after shutting down webOS hardware operations.
Apart from the question of how long LG will continue to support webOS device owners, there's also reason to wonder about the state of the open source projects that have been part of the webOS GBU/Gram, including Open webOS and Enyo. Once something hits open source there's no taking it back, so we can at least take comfort in the fact that Open webOS and Enyo aren't going to vanish off the face of the internet. But what about continued development and contributions to the code? That's hard to say.
HP's obviously made a significant commitment to open source, but there's no telling how or if LG will follow through on that. As a member of the Android Open Handset Alliance, LG does have certain obligations to open source with their Android developments, and they've done a decent job of keeping up with that obligation and releasing to open source what they're supposed to release to open source. The thriving custom Android ROMs community for LG devices is all the indication you need to know that LG's mobile division takes their Android open source commitments seriously.
But Open webOS could be different. After all, there's no Open Handset Alliance for webOS and this is the TV division we're talking about - television is an expensive and competitive business and LG doesn't really have much incentive to continue open source development and contributions of Open webOS or Enyo. The only reason HP opted to go the open source route with webOS was they knew they might eventually be able to get some money out of it, either through licensing Open webOS Professional Edition and its services or through a sale like this. Up to that point, while there might have been reasons to open source webOS, they weren't compelling enough to justify offering the source code of a proprietary creation like webOS freely and without condition to competitors and the world-at-large.
There's also the question of webOS developers. The team working on Enyo has made commendable progress and has been striving hard to bring the application framework to even more platforms and make clear the separation between Enyo and webOS. While they share a mother and grew up together, Enyo's been stepping out to see other people, if you will. With Enyo divorced in body but not necessarily mind from webOS, it too will be able to live on in open source.
But convincing developers that they need to use it will be that much harder when one has to wonder how committed LG will be to updating the open source release. Enyo's seen frequent updates over the past year as version 2.x was committed to open source and improved. But what about any improvements that LG makes in the course of shoehorning webOS onto their television motherboards? It's quite hard to say - we can't even tell you if LG intends to use Enyo in their television app development, or if they're just going to go for a straight C- and C++-coded apps experience.
While webOS on an LG TV may or may not end up looking like the webOS we've come to know and love, there's nothing saying that the people currently working as part of the webOS GBU/Gram won't be able to continue open source development on their own time. But like anybody else with a full-time job, it'd be more hobby and passion than life's work. What they do proprietarily for LG obviously won't be allowed to be added to open source on their own time, lest they lose their jobs in the process.
Of course, that's not going to stop the folks at WebOS Ports from continuing their development. While HP's been more than willing to offer their assistance whenever the Ports team needed it, we have no indication of how amiable LG will be towards the homebrew group. Our sincere hope is that they will allow the tradition of homebrew cooperation and accommodation to continue, but there's no promises that will happen.
There are a lot of things to think about with LG buying webOS, and chief among them in our eyes is this community. When we launched PreCentral back in the salad days of early 2009, we were headstrong and full of hope. The Palm Pre was the most amazing thing since zippered bread and this community exploded. Thanks to a solid base built up from eight preceding years of VisorCentral and TreoCentral, we amassed more than 500,000 registered forum members.
For obvious reasons, things have been significantly lower recently and activity has died down as people understandably moved on to other platforms. After more than thirteen years of continuous operation, we are now looking at what could very well be the end of this community. So long as the traffic justifies the investment, webOS Nation will continue to persist and exist, but we do have to acknowledge that we know this road eventually ends. How far we have to go until the pavement gives way to the sands of the lost OS desert, or webOS Nation evolves into something new and continues the legacy of VisorCentral, TreoCentral, and PreCentral, we honestly can't say, because we don't know. Right now is a sort of play-it-by-ear period for us, the last remaining major webOS blog and community.
So hold on, hang tight, and keep on with the multitasking. LG's coming to town, and we really don't know what they're bringing.