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Why HP chose not to support the TouchPad with Open webOS: priorities

With one paragraph posted three days ago, HP's Open webOS team kicked off a storm in the webOS Nation community: Open webOS would not support any existing webOS devices, including the HP TouchPad. The statement included the entirely factual point that the drivers for the TouchPad are not open source, nor does the processor support the Linux Standard Kernel 3.3 that's at the heart of Open webOS. Understandably, that brief explanation was not enough for the webOS Nation community, who had been operating under the assumption that since Open webOS is shapeing up to essentially be a moderately improved and open source version of the webOS currently available on the TouchPad, that their favorite webOS tablet would be getting an update to Open webOS. We'd been operating under that assumption as well.

Today, after talking about Enyo with HP's Enda McGrath (full disclosure: HP is paying for my flight and hotel for this trip), I asked the question on the mind of just about every member of the webOS Nation community: "Why, HP, why?" The simple answer is that while the Open webOS team wanted to support the TouchPad with an updated version of the OS, they had to make the hard decision not to dedicate the large number of employees and considerable amount of time it would have taken to accomplish the task. Apparently predicting (correctly) that I was about to ask if the departures and layoffs that have hit the webOS group have affected the progress and priorities list, Enda added that they're constantly hiring new people to work on webOS.

To put things into perspective, Enda pointed out that to open source LunaSysMgr took tens of thousands of man-hours, with developers going over hundreds of thousands of lines of code to remove and replace proprietary code from dozens of outside sources. And it's not as simple as pulling out one module and putting in another one, often times the new open source code would require rewriting aspects of the existing open source-safe code so it would work. Besides the open sourcing work, improvements were made like integrating the QtWebKit engine and Node.js, all of which took even more man-hours.

While time is obviously a restraining factor in all things, the straw that broke the update camel's back was the choice to use the Linux Standard Kernel 3.3, which the Qualcomm APQ8060 processor in the TouchPad simply does not support, and it's unknown if it will ever be certified for the kernel. While it's technically possible to make a build of Open webOS that will run on the TouchPad, when push came to shove, making that happen was dropped off of the list of top priorities in Sunnyvale.

That decision was one of the driving forces behind the release of the webOS Community Edition, which open sourced vital components of webOS 3.0.5, including that version's LunaSysMgr. HP worked with famed webOS homebrew group WebOS Internals to facilitate the release of the Community Edition and the creation of the WebOS Ports sub-group coordinate open source development off of the released code. While you might think it stopped there, McGrath says that HP is continuing to partner with WebOS Ports on the Community Edition and offering support, guidance, and even contributing to the open source code where they can. McGrath said that HP is "luck to have great collaborators and friends like Tom King and Rod Whitby" of WebOS Ports and WebOS Internals, not just to work with the company but also to be leading the webOS homebrew community.

The question of where to dedicate man-hours is one that plagues every company, even those with seemingly endless supplies of personnel and bottomless barrels of cash like Apple, Google, and Microsoft. It's an even more pressing question for organization's like HP's webOS group, who while having the support of the higher-ups at HP simply have far fewer people to work with than their bigger competitors. At its biggest, Palm counted an employee base of around one thousand, but today after layoffs and departures, the headcount at the webOS group hovers around two hundred. That includes software engineers, user interface designers, the developer relations team, and many other groups.

So when it got down to brass tacks, looking at the work left to do on Enyo and Open webOS, the decision was made by the webOS leadership team that though they didn't like it, they'd have to cut supporting the TouchPad out of their plans for Open webOS. For what it's worth, HP never proclaimed that Open webOS would be released for the TouchPad, though just about all of us in the community did come to the foregone conclusion that they would. You'd think we'd learn not to make those assumptions.

As mentioned earlier, McGrath to point out that while it'd take a lot of work on HP's part, it's not technically impossible to make Open webOS run on the TouchPad. In fact, he fully expects that the webOS homebrew community will step up to make it happen, just as the Android community has done. I didn't get the impression that the decision was made knowing and hoping that the homebrew community would do it for them - HP wanted to do this, but simply didn't have the time.