Why HP/Palm webOS should be open(-sourc)ed…

Those who have been reading this blog for a little longer eventually might know I’m pretty enthusiastic about Open Source both due to pragmatic and to “philosophic” reasons of this approach, and eventually I tend to “demand” software to be released as open source eventually a little more often than necessary or appropriate. However, in case of webOS, the cell / smart phone application platform initially invented by Palm and now, along with all the remainder of Palm, owned by HP, this seems an approach pretty much reasonable and logical for several reasons…

Reason #1: Platform adoption

Right now, there are two predominant emerging cell phone platforms: Apple iOS and Google Android. These are predominant, in my opinion, for two reasons: The iOS is pretty widespread simply because the iPhone, and, growing, the iPad are and will be devices rather widely adopted due to various reasons of both technical and “lifestyle” nature. Android, on the other side, is rather widespread these days because of being an open source, generic and pretty powerful mobile platform which by now is in use in many of the newer cell phones, smart phones, tablets and so forth. At the very least with large German distributors like Pearl seeling low-price Android based tablets, it seems this platform massively is on its way up, next to unstoppable. This seems close to what some people next to Apple think, too.

So, how does that relate to webOS?

Well, if you’re a developer wanting to make a living off developing mobile applications and services, you practically have to choose your target platform. iOS is interesting due to the widespread use of Apple devices these days. Android is interesting because it runs on a lot of different devices, thus becoming widespread, generic and next to vendor independent. And webOS? webOS, so far, practically just runs on two different lines of devices – the Palm Pre and Palm Pixi series of devices in its various incarnations (“original” versions, “Plus” versions, and, at least as far as the Pre is concerned, the “2” release launched a few weeks ago). Both of these, in the end, are niche products, and in Germany, o2 who used to sell both the Pre and the Pixi so far, already announced they will not offer the Pre 2 product line in near future (and instead did quite a launch campaign related to the iPhone 4).

In the end, at the moment webOS is a platform of pretty little interest to any new developers, which, ultimately, will result in less apps being written and published, which, in turns, will make the platform even less interesting to end users. This is not good. Even worse, however, for developers who already chose to go with webOS: At the moment, it seems the webOS devices aren’t getting the kind of (marketing) love and attention they eventually would need (or deserve, for that matter) to gain more market share. At the very least, the Pre 2 / webOS 2.0 devices should be available or provided by all the essential phone carriers. So far, HP/Palm fails at that, unfortunately.

From this point of view, making webOS an open source platform definitely could help: It could provide companies wanting to have an open, vendor independent platform solution with one additional option next to Google Android (leaving out Symbian here simply because I don’t know where “open source Symbian” is about to head next…). It could increase competition on the smartphone platform market, which surely would be a good thing, and in my opinion it is most likely to increase the amount of devices running webOS.

Reason #2: The Google ./. Oracle patent lawsuit

A smaller reason, somewhat related to the things just outlined before: There are ongoing legal hostilities between Google and Oracle relating to “intellectual property” (or, more specifically, patent claims) in or eventually violated by the Android operating system. At the moment, it is unsure how this is about to turn out in the end. From this point of view, having another open, device-independent smart phone platform definitely would be a good thing.

Reason #3: Open development and security

Again and again, there are reports on security holes in current and coming releases of webOS. Sure, Android and iOS also are prone to vulnerabilities once in a while, like most operating system platform these days actually is. And, right, other than Android and iOS, webOS does not need any kind of jailbreaking in order to make the end user have full permissions (read: control) over their device. In the end, it doesn’t eventually matter…

… what does matter, however, is that Palm/HP (or: the phone carriers in charge for actually distributing the bits) so far hasn’t been pretty fast or active in fixing such issues and providing fixes or workarounds to end users, even though webOS provides a pretty good feature for distributing and installing that kind of stuff (OTA, or “Over-The-Air” – update, is the term here). When I bought my Pre in September 2010, I just once recieved an OTA update pushing webOS 1.4.5 to the device (initially it came with 1.3.something), but ever since: Silence. No updates, no security fixes, no nothing. Given the implications of potentially dangerous security holes left unpatched on devices used by end users without much knowledge or understanding about these issues, this is a policy pretty difficult to accept.

Here, making webOS an open source community project might help, as soon as “the community” or some maintainer would be capable of providing updates and patches to such flaws more “in-time” than HP/Palm manages to do, right now.

Reason #4: Technical perception of the platform

Well, as a final reason, the most “geek” one I have to admit, and, to use appropriate words: In my opinion, webOS simply is a rather neat development platform. The idea of doing application development simply using JavaScript, HTML, CSS and JSON based services is just sane and logical from my point of view (even if it poses some security threats and, thus, needs care to be taken). There’s a rather well-stacked Developer Center at hand to help webOS developers getting started, and the development tools are pretty good, too. Maybe, in the end, this is a re-iteration of reason #1, related to market share and adoption of the platform, but, in the end, I think webOS just has a vast potential which, at the moment, goes almost unnoticed. Being more “offensive”, growing a larger community surrounding the platform, maybe providing a bunch of new devices themselves (like the PalmPad that eventually will see the light of day in 2011), and, yes, eventually doing so by open-sourcing the platform itself drastically could change that. And that’s what I still hope for. Yes, I like webOS. ;)

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