The "OS" in "webOS" should have always meant "Open Source" [editorial] | webOS Nation

The "OS" in "webOS" should have always meant "Open Source" [editorial]

by Tim Stiffler-Dean Fri, 09 Dec 2011 6:05 pm EST

When I heard the news that HP was going to be open sourcing webOS in the future, I immediately had an image of certain homebrew developers calling out, "Everybody jusy stay calm! I got this one...." Perhaps my opinion differs from most others in this community, but frankly, HP open-sourcing webOS was the best thing they could have done for the platform. Palm tried to make it happen, and they failed miserably. HP tried their own short-lived trials with it, and they failed even more miserably. Why, then, do I have any confidence that an open-sourced mobile platform will see even the slightest bit of success in the future of tech?

The answer is simple - our community is amazing.

Here's the thing, the webOS community is not only Rod Whitby and his band of merry men (WebOS Internals) or Derek Kessler and the misfits that he runs with (the rest of us here at webOS Nation). The webOS Nation runs far and wide around the world, with fans, developers, designers and plenty of influential people standing behind it who want to see it succeed. Where HP had committees and management problems, webOS now has a fighting chance to live out its purpose completely and become the open sourced mobile platform that Android could only dream of becoming.

So why is an open source webOS the answer to all of our wishes? Let me count the ways....

1. Free and Open Source means everyone will get a slice of the pie.

Every mobile device maker out there knows that to bring people over into your corner of the market you need to create an experience that is unique to your devices. There are currently two major operating systems that are available to all major manufacturers to use. Android is very open but lacks a lot of the shine that makes other OS's more desirable (until Ice Cream Sandwich, that is). WP7 is very nice looking but is handled very strictly by the Microsoft overlords (manufacturers can't put their own skin on it and must adhere to specific rules setup by Microsoft).

And now, you have webOS; the platform that nearly every tech enthusiast in the world wanted to succeed, even if those geeks were fans of some other bundle of software. I can't name a single respectable person in the tech world that has not commented on the great potential of webOS (even Steve Jobs complimented the work of Palm back in the day), and that is saying a lot. Hardware manufacturers better recognize - the world wants to see webOS somewhere, and by allowing webOS to go completely open source, HP has effectively opened the door to every device manufacturer and said "You know you want to...."

See? It just feels right.

When HTC, Samsung, Amazon, Facebook and even South Korea are looking to work on their own mobile OS, you can bet they will all take second, third and fourth glances at an open-sourced webOS. Even if they do use webOS' offerings to improve their own products without actually using webOS on the front-end, they will be contributing back to the webOS community to make things better for us (like when Microsoft contributes code to various open source projects), and they will also be making the current market better for the masses. Innovation means we all win, no matter if that innovation carries the webOS name or not. So if an OEM uses Enyo to enhance their platform, webOS, the webOS Nation, HP and everyone else involved all get some good out of it.

Oh right, and the whole thing is patent protected and will be enforced by HP. Manufacturers would love to build something that isn't going to get them sued by Apple, Google, Starbucks and various political groups around the world.

2. Our community will step up and do what HP could not.

Once again, where HP had committees, board meetings and a failed CEO (not Meg Whitman), webOS has the most passionately driven developer community over every single other developer community currently out there. We don't just love our devices, we really frickin' love our devices (it's kind of horrifying how much we love these devices, to be honest). Just look at the money that you've raised each year for our Homebrew development teams, not to mention how much more money our developers make off of webOS than they do on other platforms (because we buy more of their apps). We are a very, very active people.

Bug Fixes, Patches, Feature Additions, Kernels, OS Updates; all of these things could be improved in some ways, but not all of them could be improved (quickly) by the behemoth of corporate structure that is HP. Oh, and by the way, WebOS Internals and other homebrew developers have already fixed some of those bugs and problems with their own projects. We aren't talking about anarchy here, people, and neither am I saying that HP will release all control over to the masses, but pushing fixes through into the platform will take days or less to do via the Open Source developer community rather than weeks or "in the coming months" that it almost always took HP to make changes. You could actually see that multi-layered wave launcher we were all drooling over last week.

The wave launcher you never used, but loved to oggle at.

Find a security flaw? Oh alright. Developers can create a fix and submit it back to the community where it will be tested, reviewed and quickly released to the public. This is the same with Wordpress, Ubuntu, Firefox and Joomla - everyone contributes and everyone wins. Will the userbase be small at first? Sure, that's pretty much a definite, but even Android had to start off somewhere. Even Ubuntu had a beginning. Fortunately for us, webOS already has developers in place and ready to build cool stuff, and 2 million+ users ready to try something new (seriously, though, we all want to see something new really bad).

3. People like to rebel against manufacturers

If the hardware manufacturers themselves don't take up the opportunity to bring their devices to the world of webOS (which, as I mentioned before, would be close to insane), then consumers will take up the slack and bring webOS to other hardware. Current devices stand no chance at being left unscathed. Heck, Ryan Hope, a webOS homebrew developer, has already done what many webOS fans have dreamed over; he ported webOS 3.0 to an HTC EVO 3D. There's is still plenty of work to be done before this is actually a usable port, but it shows what developers in the near future will be capable of.

Remember when Android first came out years ago? I'm talking before it was ever on an actual device being sold on the market. In those days, I remember my nerdy self getting my hands on the source code and spending a few weeks trying to find a way to get it to work on my own PPC 6700. I may not have succeeded, but it was that early tinkering from interested developers that helped pave the way for Android into the future success that it now has. This was before smartphones were even that popular (just after the first iPhone hit) and many consumers were still being introduced to simple concepts like sending email via a telephony device.

Fast forward a few years, and you now have a world that not only has a steadily growing smartphone market (the kind where people are buying new smartphones over upgrading their home PC), but it also actively promotes geekiness and the ability to build cool stuff with code. If Android was able to leap forward because people wanted to rebel against the already popular iPhone, webOS will fare even better against the vastly more popular Android. As Ryan Hope has already shown with his HTC EVO 3D, people are going to do this because they really want to do this - and now there are no licensing walls to stop them from pushing forward.

Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus.

4. HP can still reboot the brand

They may have said that it's not coming soon, but that doesn't mean it's not coming. HP still has a lot to gain from supporting the continued development of webOS, and that includes building more webOS hardware. No smartphones? Fine. But if you show the world a truly great tablet device or throw webOS on your PC's, you will be inspiring plenty of other engineers to make their products better.

As many people in our webOS Nation have said in the past (particularly on the PalmCast), the webOS name has been tainted a bit in the eyes of the public. Several of us here all agree, for webOS to succeed under HP, they need to do a serious rebooting of the brand, which includes not making new hardware for a while so that people can get the foul taste out of their mouths. When HP announced today that webOS was going to be open sourced, they essentially told the world to get ready for the longest webOS restart in history (previous record goes to an original Palm Pre owner, which took somewhere around 4 months or so).

Here's the scenario: HP puts webOS out there for the extremely passionate developer community to help improve, they wait a few months for the software to mature and to build up good reputation in the eyes of the tech world (because everyone in the tech world likes talking about and playing with shiny new things built by cool people) and in a year's time they can start working on that webOS hardware again and relaunching their line of devices. You might remember another company that did something similar back in the day: Mozilla was birthed from Netscape Communitor 4.0 when Microsoft's Internet Explorer was having a hay-day taking over the planet. Today Mozilla is the most popular browser alternative to the propreitary software put out by Microsoft (oh, and if you say that now Google Chrome is beating Firefox, you're actually further proving my point - the Chromium project is also an open source project). Open source does not mean death-sentence. Not by a long shot.

Don't worry, it was all just a bad nightmare.

Also, HP obviously needs to learn a thing or two about the mobile markets before jumping back in with both feet. Over the next few months/years that they are developing webOS quietly in the background they have the perfect opportunity to actually learn what it means to release new devices. You know, they can actually do that research before investing billions of dollars into a product right before pulling it off of the shelves. That has to count for something.

There's still work to be done, but the future is bright

We've heard this before, haven't we? HP bought Palm and we were excited. Now HP is open sourcing webOS and our community is a bit split, but I'm still excited (as are a few others). With an open source webOS there are a few challenges, but it is increasingly true that people are looking to open source projects to continue fueling innovation (something else that HP desparately wants to be known for again). If the cards are played correctly, and they should be, webOS will one day become the passionately developed, appropriately funded, and widely manufactured mobile operating system that it deserves to be. At the very least, from the looks of things, the webOS Nation is here to stay for a long time to come.

I propose that we are not approaching another drought for webOS-fans, but we are approaching a perfect storm. Finally, all of those heated voices who have spoken out against HP's decisions with webOS will have direct influence over what happens to the operating system in the future. Finally, other device manufacturers can make webOS-powered devices without signing a possible death-sentence with a company that has been steadily declining in value over the last year. Finally, with a little elbow-grease and know-how, we can port webOS to hardware that already exists and make the tech-world a better place because of it. Maybe you'll say I'm being overly-optimistic, but in my mind's eye Android is a little frightened by the potential for a real open source competitor, especially since that competitor also owns the patent for the smartphone.

Consumers may not see any new devices come out in the next few years, but I assure you that it will happen (I would put money down on this, if I had money to put down). Who knows, maybe one day I'll get to review a dozen new webOS devices every day like Phil Nickinson at AndroidCentral. Ok maybe that's pushing it a bit....

Or maybe not. webOS is dead. Long live webOS.