Touching on the state of webOS

webOS is regarded as a solid platform, but can it ever take off?

Photo credit: IDG News Service

As Android continues to power through the smartphone sector and slowly finds its footing in the tablet market in the face of competition from Apple's dominant iOS-based devices, we should all pause and take note of the other Linux-based mobile OS: webOS.

webOS is one of those pieces of technology that can be forgotten without too much effort. I have had plenty of "oh yeah, what about webOS?" moments, and I'm supposed to be paying attention to this space.

[Tablet deathmatch: HP TouchPad vs. Apple iPad 2 and Can HP's webOS and TouchPad slow down the iPad?]

The fault is not entirely mine; developed by Palm, which was later acquired by HP, webOS hasn't exactly been making waves in the mobile platform scene. The Pre and Pixi smartphone offerings were regarded as okay phones (though we won't speak of Pre 2, the Phone That Shall Not Be Named), but they were unable to get the kind of traction Android did.

That may be about to change, if the latest showcase device for webOS, the HP TouchPad, manages to take off after its July 1 release.

There's a lot about the TouchPad that's got it going on: a nine-inch screen, a dual-core 1.2 GHz processor, and webOS itself, which many reviewers regard as the device's most powerful asset.

But, as has been said so many times, there's still a lack of apps, which pretty much is the one biggest complaint that any operating system must address. Desktop Linux suffered from this problem for years, and is only now able to start asserting itself with an application ecosystem large enough to attract users. Android and iOS do not have this problem, but alas, webOS does, and it needs to rectify this fast.

Because it's starting to be even tougher for webOS. Rumors are out today that US carrier Sprint is possibly dropping the Pre 3 from the its device lineup, ending a long-standing partnership between Sprint and HP. The Pre 3 (which will run webOS 2.2) is still, from all apparent reports, expected to land at AT&T and Verizon. And the tiny little Veer 4G, another recent webOS 2.1 device, was available back on May 15 at AT&T.

The rumored Pre 3/Sprint split is just that--a rumor--so there's no telling why Sprint may be dropping the webOS device. Speculation points to disappointing sales for the Pre and Pixi lines, and that seems a good bet. I've got an inside line in Sprint, and based on past conversations, Sprint's focus on the bottom line has become downright obsessive of late.

One carrier drop is not the end of the world. if it continues, the lack of outlets could seriously harm any incentive for webOS developers to jump on board. HP already has a challenge attracting developers in the face of the easier money/fame to be found in the lands o' iOS and Android app development. With a low market share, there's not a lot of incentive for developers to port or build apps to the platform. This should be HP's number one webOS mission: fortify the webOS developer community and infrastructure to start filling the application gap.

And they know it: on July 1, timed for the release of the TouchPad, HP announced what they termed a "major updates" to the webOS developer program, as well a new developer certification program.

HP has also launched a app discovery content platform inside the App Catalog called Pivot, which is designed to spotlight developers and enhanced app marketing. This seems a little premature--given the scarcity of apps in the catalog, how hard would it be to actually find apps?--but it lays a decent framework if the application set for webOS takes off.

HP may be taking the extraordinary step of actually licensing webOS to run on other manufacturers' devices, despite earlier statements to the contrary. That stance seems to have gone by the wayside, as HP has come to the conclusion that in the mobile marketplace, it's no Apple, and hanging on to an HP-only device channel may not be a great idea.

So on the eve of the TouchPad launch, there was HP CEO Leo Apotheker telling us:

"'We are talking to a number of companies,' Apotheker said in an interview in Beijing yesterday, declining to elaborate on details. 'I can share with you that a number of companies have expressed interest. We are continuing our conversations.'"

Current bets are a Samsung partnership, which would be interesting. Whoever the licensee, another webOS outlet would certainly attract developers, especially if that licensee could build a device that catches consumer attention more than the previous HP offerings have.

webOS is certainly not on the way out the door. In some respects, it's doing better than ever. But HP is going to have to put a lot into this capable mobile platform if it wants webOS to be a player in mobile space.

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