by Rob Enderle

Is WebOS the Next Desktop Linux, Java or Symbian?

News Analysis
Jan 27, 20126 mins
BrowsersDeveloperEnterprise Applications

HP is taking WebOS open source with the hope that it can attract developers by providing a write-once-run-everyplace platform. However, Rob Enderle writes, history hasn't been kind to operating systems as only few survive, but while WebOS has risks it also has potential, if HP willing to invest properly.

HP has made its expected announcement regarding what it plans to do with WebOS. It is going the open source route and is positioning it as an alternative to the other contenders for the next desktop. This desktop isn’t focused on a standard desktop or laptop, but encompasses all form factors from smartphones and tablets to Smart TVs. HP is using the Java-like message of “write once run everyplace” that has been promised, but never truly delivered by Sun’s old Java platform.

The operating system market has been an ugly one since the beginning, wiping out once powerful vendors such as Atari and Commodore in the early years; crippling IBM, which had to exit the segment over a decade ago; and claiming upstarts like Palm, NeXT and Netscape during the process. Right now there are three viable operating systems contenders: Windows dominates PCs; iOS, which is slated to replace the MacOS at some point across Apple’s ecosystem; and Android, another fork of Linux from Google. ChromeOS and MeeGo are all but stillborn, Symbian is on its deathbed and Metro has yet to be fully market-tested.

WebOS the Promise

WebOS, a Linux derivative, is kind of a blend of ideas. It has aspects of Java in its messaging in that it promises to provide a write-once-run-in-any standards-compliant browser message. And in a world where increasingly apps are hosted, or are very light, and sold in app stores, this model—which wasn’t viable a few years ago—is far more viable now.

It still will have trouble with resource-intensive applications that will need to get intimate with hardware in order to perform adequately but, increasingly, that kind of performance is being handled by services like OnLive, which can resource them from the cloud. Local applications, due largely to the new tablet-driven requirements of small size and long battery life are increasingly very light and that should lend them to the WebOS model.

WebOS has little old legacy code to deal with and can be more aggressive with newer concepts such as visualization and compartmentalizing some activities (business apps) from others (entertainment). It was also designed against a lower performance (ARM) hardware model that Microsoft is currently struggling to adapt. In short, it may be closer to where the competing platforms will be at some future time in terms of technology. Unlike iOS, if you want to license it to resell on your platform, you can and it should be more secure (thanks to HP’s security focus) than Android, which has struggled with malware.

However, this is not a “build it and they will come” market as Google discovered with ChromeOS and Microsoft continues to discover with its Windows Phone platform. It is a costly market to play in and it has huge risks for a hardware vendor like HP.

WebOS Risks

Looking back at OS/2—which was the best-funded and most catastrophic of the desktop operating system attempts—we can anticipate some problems with WebOS. The biggest one is that the major hardware vendors tend to avoid solutions that come from competitors and that is where companies such as Google with Android and Microsoft with Windows get their scale. This showcases what is likely the biggest problem for HP: The very people HP may need to license the OS will avoid it like the plague for fear HP will use the ownership of WebOS to their disadvantage. There is precedent for this belief as Apple licensed the MacOS successfully for a few years, but upon Steve Jobs return to the company the practice was discontinued, putting most of the companies licensing the OS out of business.

In short, the very real fear is that if a partner were to become successful enough with WebOS to harm HP, HP would move to cripple that partner. Regardless of whether HP would do this, the belief could prevent a major commitment.

The other major risk is the cost to drive a new platform can be daunting. Google was able to drive Android into the market cheaply because it was a stronger competitor to iOS than anything else that existed and the OEMs that licensed it were in desperately in need of an alternative. Currently, this alternative slot is still filled by Android and even with funding from Microsoft, the Windows Phone platform has all but bounced with Nokia, Microsoft’s largest partner, reporting massive losses this quarter even after a Microsoft’s over billion dollar cash infusion. The Mango version of Windows Phone has received good reviews, but the market has made a choice and to move into the segment you have to displace someone else.

In short, based on the experience with OS/2 and Microsoft’s own experience with Windows Phone, a successful attempt to materially penetrate this new personal device segment on either the PC side or the device side comes with a cost of between $2 billion and $10 billion with excellent execution including marketing. At HP, and most tech companies (other than Apple), marketing is not a strength and tends to be under-resourced.

WebOS a Trojan Horse?

This falls back on the strategy of pushing WebOS as the common development platform in a write-once-run-everyplace future world. This is clearly a need for developers who are incurring high costs by having separate development groups on each of the existing major platforms. Writing for Windows (desktop and phone), Apple (iOS/MacOS), Android and now Amazon (Android Fork) is becoming costly in terms of teams, porting and keeping expertise up to date. A lower-cost alternative, that—and this is the key—got them similar results could be attractive.

Once the developers move, putting a new OS under what becomes the largest collection of apps could be successful; but it won’t be cheap. In short, the biggest impediment to success is the trend by all but Steve Jobs’ Apple to underfund efforts like this, basing the budget on what they want to spend rather than funding at a level that will ensure success. We should know soon if Meg Whitman’s HP has learned this lesson.

In the end, the platform is interesting, the opportunity (while not as good as Google’s with Android) is still real, but the cost for success may still be beyond HP’s willingness to or ability to pay. If HP executes here, it will make history. If it doesn’t, it will join an ever-growing group of powerful companies that failed.

Rob is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance, and Security. Currently, Rob writes on emerging technology, security, and Linux for a wide variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.