webOS prognosis: On life support

HP is now keeping fate of webOS close

After deciding not to get rid of their Personal Systems Group (PSG), Hewlett-Packard is apparently trying to convince people that a similar reversal could be in store for webOS.

In an interview with Bloomberg Television on Oct. 28, Executive VP of PSG Todd Bradley specifically denied rumors that HP was planning on laying off the division responsible for webOS.

When asked what people should make of the Friday story in The Guardian indicating that HP planned to "shut down its webOS division, acquired for $1.2bn in April 2010 when it bought Palm, and make the staff there redundant or shift them elsewhere inside the company," Bradley responded (4:57):

"I think you should make of that as a [sic] unfounded rumor. Our focus with webOS is how we effectively utilize that phenomenal software and the phenomenal talent in that piece of our business."

Bradley deflected questions about which way he and HP executives were leaning on the fate of webOS, only saying that like the PC business, HP would rely on information and data about the market to make their decision.

The Guardian's report on the disputed closure of webOS isn't exactly fairy-tale make-believe stuff. Before he was ousted in September, former HP CEO Leo Apotheker specifically indicated that the PC and webOS divisions of HP would be sold off. When he outlined all this in August, HP's stock plummeted and Apotheker was eventually removed from the CEO seat, to be replaced by Meg Whitman. Meanwhile, high-level staff have been leaving the webOS team recently, and despite reported efforts to sell webOS assets, there's been no success.

Like Bradley, Whitman hasn't given any hints about the future of webOS, either. On HP's Oct. 27 earnings call, Whitman would only say that the company would make a decision about webOS in the next couple of months.

Given the reversal of the decision to spin off the PSG division, it's hard to guess what HP will ultimately do with webOS, the Linux-based operating system that was at the heart of their now-shelved HP TouchPad tablet. But I have an idea.

During this year's OSCON, right before the Apotheker mess, I spoke with some people on the webOS team, and was led to believe that webOS would not only lie at the heart of the HP TouchPad, but the OS would also show up as a control/interface platform in HP's other devices, such as their printers and as a fast-boot platform on their laptop and desktop machines.

Based on Whitman's reported enthusiasm for "making tablets for Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 OS. Windows 8" during Thursday's earning call, I think the TouchPad will be revived, but it won't be running webOS.

Here's what Bradley said in that Bloomberg interview (3:17) right before he pooh-poohed the Guardian report as rumor:

"What we did was stop making webOS... tablets. We're continuing to invest in webOS software. In fact, last week we refreshed with a recent update of that software for the over million users that have webOS products today."

Bradley, when you listen to the interview, makes a pause between "webOS" and "tablets" (the video is running stock shots at that moment, so you can read his body language). It is not certain if that pause was significant, but I have a feeling it is. If webOS does manage to stick around, my theory is that it will live on in the other devices HP was hinting about during OSCON. Specifically, as a printer/scanner interface.

This would be a natural platform for some of the web-based apps that HP currently runs on some of it's printers, which enable users to print out daily news digests and crossword puzzles (among other curated content). webOS could expand on that a bit, though honestly it seems like using it on printers and other office devices makes a lot less sense than it did during OSCON. That's because a webOS-printer model fit well within the broader "one platform to rule them all" model.

But if webOS is to be supplanted on tablets by Windows 8, and you can be darn sure Microsoft will do its best to keep webOS off HP machines as a fast-boot option that would enable surfing and e-mailing before loading Windows, then what other devices would fit within the "one platform" goal? Phones? Hardly; both manufacturers and cellular carriers have given their tacit disapproval of webOS, citing a great platform, yet no apps.

Needless to say, I don't think much of HP's assertions that webOS is going to stay around, because other than HP's own printer line, where else are they going to put it?

I think what we are seeing here is nothing more than an attempt to generate stockholder confidence in HP after the market shrieked in reaction to Apotheker's plans.

I also wonder if this isn't a little bit of leveraging with Microsoft, on which HP seems to be hanging its star of late. The touting of Windows 8 on future HP tablets was a pretty big giveaway, after all, and I would not be surprised to read about a big partnership/marketing deal between HP and Microsoft à la Nokia in the near future. Right now, I suspect, the negotiations for that deal may be happening, and HP may be playing up webOS in an attempt to remind Microsoft that it still has a card to play in the tablet OS game.

If such a deal is finalized, that deal won't specifically mention the demise of webOS (there are those pesky anti-trust laws to consider, after all), but it will be a nail in webOS's coffin all the same.

This is one of those theories I hope I get wrong. Even if webOS does live on in HP's printers and scanners, it will be a limbo that the legacy of Palm really doesn't deserve.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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