December 12, 2011, 10:45 AM — So Friday, just in time for the weekend, HP announced that it would be making the webOS mobile platform an open source operating system.
And was there much rejoicing? No, no there was not.
Search for "webOS" in your favorite news searching tool and you will see that the predominant theme in the coverage from my colleagues is that this move appears to be a last, desperate stand by a company that could not figure out what to do with webOS, nor sell it off due to an apparent lack of interested parties.
That may all be true, though there's quite a bit of speculation in these themes, because we're all just guessing at what HP was using as its decision process. As more news about the licensing and governance comes out, we should be able to discern a bit more.
For the record, I am cool with HP's move, though skeptical that this will amount to anything resembling a success. But something that interests me in the more immediate term is: what will this move do to Tizen?
Tizen, as you may remember, is the out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new-brand successor to the Intel's and Nokia's MeeGo operating system for smartphones, tablets, and in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems. Meego was stewarded by the Linux Foundation, as is Tizen, which is commercially driven by Intel and Samsung.
Initially, I speculated that MeeGo would be kept alive as a native-app platform, while Tizen would focus on HTML5 apps. That was based on some early discontinuity in the Tizen announcements made by the Linux Foundation and Intel. I'm now reasonable sure I was off the mark, and Tizen will indeed by the sole successor to the MeeGo legacy.
Friday's announcement by HP, though, may put all of this into the moot category.
Depending on how HP releases webOS, the former Palm platform could be in immediate competition with Tizen on the developer level, potentially vying for coders from the same global development group: pro-FLOSS developers who want to make their mark in the mobile arena.
There could also be a one-way borrowing of code--if webOS falls under an Apache-like license, for instance, then Tizen, which is presumably licensed under the GPL v2 and LGPL v2 like its MeeGo predecessor, could freely use webOS code if it wanted to, but not the other way around. (Use of GPLed code in an Apache Software Licensed project would immediately require the Apache product to be licensed under the GPL.) Again, it all hangs on what license webOS uses.
This is a weakly constructed argument, as there are a lot of "ifs," but I keep coming back to the one thing webOS has that Tizen currently doesn't: an actual device to which apps can be pushed.
Fully realizing that the HP TouchPad has been discontinued due to reports of abysmal sales, I nonetheless have to wonder if there's enough of these devices out there to provide a more attractive platform on which developers can code. The last-minute fire sale of $99 TouchPads may have made all the difference for attracting those developers.
Because, until Samsung gets some sort of Tizen-based product to market, right now webOS actually has the edge in the device space--small as that market share may be when compared to Android, iOS, and Bada (you know, Samsung's other mobile OS). That edge cannot be ignored.
On the other hand, developer interest in webOS may never solidify, no matter what its license. There is a growing sense in the mobile market that the existing players--the aforementioned three and Microsoft's Windows Phone 7--are enough. For good or ill, there may not be enough resources in the market for new mobile platforms, because the market leaders are still growing so fast in their respective channels, and developers will stick with them in order to see their apps are more widely distributed.
Whatever the long-term outlook is for mobile platform competition, I cannot picture how an open-sourced webOS could do anything but harm Tizen, at least in the short term. Tizen can still pull out of this successfully--particularly if it makes a sharp turn and wins in IVI systems.
Tizen is going to be in for a bumpy ride.
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