We strongly believe that the best days for webOS are still ahead.

Thus spake Meg Whitman in her memo to the troops, an intramural rendition of HP’s official announcement that webOS will be “contributed” to the Open Source community.

...the executive team has been working to determine the best path forward for this highly respected software. We looked at all the options in the market today...By providing webOS to the open source community...we have the potential to fundamentally change the landscape.


Either she thinks we’re dimwits, or she’s being cleverly cheeky. Does she think we’ll fall for the tired corpospeak? “Victory! WhatWereWeThinking v3.0 has been released to the Open Source community”. Or is she slyly fessing up? “After much abuse inside the HP cage, it’s clear that webOS can only be restored to health if released into the wild.”

Releasing a product as Open Source isn’t always an admission of failure; see exhibits Linux or, more recently, WebKit. But the successful Open Source offerings were created in Open Source form. They weren’t “contributed” in a last-ditch effort to save face after unsuccessful attempts to monetize a proprietary version.

Furthermore, there’s real money to be made with an Open Source product...if you know what you’re doing. Look at Red Hat: nicely profitable, with nearly a $10B market cap. They make a lot of money selling Linux...or, more accurately, by selling a Linux “distro”, a suite of products and services that surround the free Linux kernel. They make money the iTunes way: Customers won’t pay for tunes that are otherwise (more or less legally) freely available, but they will pay for services around the music.

So is Open Source the way to go for webOS? I don’t think so.

Let’s look at Symbian, a product that’s similar to webOS in its complicated history: Born at Psion; moved to a Nokia-Motorola-Ericsson-Matsushita-Psion joint venture; thrown into Open Source by the Symbian Foundation, an even more complicated JV. Lately, things have become even murkier as Symbian appears to have been “outsourced to Accenture”.

Adobe’s Flex is another kicked-to-the-kerb example. When HTML5 appeared to displace Flash, Adobe officially open-sourced Flex to the non-profit Apache Software Foundation.

Even the success of Firefox, certainly the most visible Open Source application, might not be as indisputable as we first thought.  With net assets of $120M at the end of 2009, the “non-profit” Mozilla Foundation, Firefox’s progenitor, has been the great Open Source success story. 2009 revenues were $104 million, most of which was generated by sending searches to Google from the Firefox browser. In other words, Google has been Firefox’ sugar daddy as the Mountain View company battles Microsoft’s Internet Explorer quasi-monopoly.

But things have changed. Google Chrome is in its ascendancy; Google points to security holes in Firefox. Firefox served at Google’s pleasure, but is no longer needed.

Not exactly a bona fides Open Source success.

(Ironically -- or at least amusingly -- Meg Whitman singled out Firefox as an example of Open Source success in a post-announcement interview. To add tech credentials to appearance, she had HP director, venture investor, and Netscape founder Marc Andreessen sitting by her side. We won’t dwell on the admission that trotting out Andreessen represents.)

A closer look at HP’s official statements makes things even less clear:

HP will engage the open source community to help define the charter of the open source project under a set of operating principles:
. The goal of the project is to accelerate the open development of the webOS platform
. HP will be an active participant and investor in the project
. Good, transparent and inclusive governance to avoid fragmentation
. Software will be provided as a pure open source project
HP also will contribute ENYO, the application framework for webOS, to the community in the near future along with a plan for the remaining components of the user space.
Beginning today, developers and customers are invited to provide input and suggestions at http://developer.palm.com/blog/.


This is language designed to obfuscate rather than clarify, filled with qualifiers and weasel words. Read it again and ask yourself: Is there even one actionable sentence? are we given numbers, dates, some measurable commitment?

No. Instead, we get lame HR-like phrases:

. HP will engage the open source community -- in what kind of embrace?
. active participant and investor -- by how much and when?
. transparent and inclusive governance -- why not opaque and exclusionary?
. a pure open source project -- as opposed to yesterday’s impure and proprietary?
. near future… along with a plan -- we don’t know, we’re just saying


Nowhere does Whitman state how much money, how many people, or when things might coalesce.

Allow me to translate:

We tried and tried and found no takers for webOS. Android is too strong, our old partner Microsoft leaned on us, and webOS is seen as damaged goods. We used the Open Source exit to get kudos from vocal enthusiasts. We know it’s cynical, but what do you want us to say? Good bye and good luck?


The charade (and cynicism) doesn’t stop there. Now we’re told HP might make webOS-powered tablets. Not in 2012, that year’s roadmap has been inked, HP is committed to Windows 8 tablets. Maybe in 2013. That, ladies and gentlemen, attests to HP’s unwavering commitment to webOS.

By 2013 there will be tablets coming from all the usual suspects (except RIM): Samsung, Googorola and other Android players, Amazon, Microsoft’s OEMs and newly acquired subsidiary Nokia...and, of course, Apple’s iPad HD2.

When I hear Whitman make such statements, I’m reminded of the old joke about the difference between a computer salesperson and a used-car salesman: The used-car gent knows he’s lying. For my alma mater’s sake, for HP’s good, let’s hope Meg Whitman knows she’s putting us on.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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