Hewlett-Packard on Friday revealed its intention to distribute WebOS under an open-source license, in what could be final move in a chess game that began with its $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm.
In a carefully worded press release, HP didn't specify which open-source license it would pursue for WebOS, noting only that it will be an "active participant and investor" in the project, and that the software that comes from it will be "pure open source."
HP is also planning to open source Enyo, the WebOS development environment, "in the near future," according to the press release. In September at the InformationWeek 500 conference, HP Chairman Ray Lane touted Enyo as "the leading Web app development environment today".
HP couldn’t be reached for further clarification on the points outlined in the press release.
HP is hoping that open sourcing WebOS will attract hardware makers that are looking for an alternative to Android, which for all its industry momentum hasn't been immune to criticisms.
HP says it will look to create a WebOS open-source project around the principle of "Good, transparent and inclusive governance to avoid fragmentation," all issues that have been raised by Android detractors.
However, the existence other open-source mobile operating systems facing uncertain futures, like Meego and Maemo, could make it challenging for HP to get open-source developers on board with WebOS. John Locke, principal consultant at Freelock Computing, a Seattle-based open-source consultancy, says none of the open-source mobile projects have gained much momentum to date.
"I would definitely like to see one of these take off under community leadership, but I really don't see it happening," Locke said. "For one thing, there are too many of these abandoned OSs already. For another, I don't see any really strong community-oriented players to step up and lead one to success."
The fate of HP's WebOS software unit -- and the approximately 600 employees in it -- have been up in the air since August, when the company guillotined the TouchPad and started exploring a spin-off or sale of its Personal Systems Group.
In a Nov. 8 all-hands meeting, HP CEO Meg Whitman said she needed more time to decide on WebOS, and that any decision to keep it would be part of a long-term strategy. Oracle, Amazon, HTC, Samsung and Facebook have been rumored to be interested in acquiring HP's WebOS software assets.
Meanwhile, industry watchers are drawing their own conclusions about HP's decision. Horace Dediu, author of the mobility market intelligence blog Asymco, offered a succinct interpretation of HP's decision. "I can only assume HP could not find a buyer for WebOS," he said in a Friday tweet.
John Gruber, author of the Apple-focused Daring Fireball blog, questioned whether HP's decision to turn WebOS over to the open-source community will entice developers, particularly since HP has already shuttered its WebOS hardware unit.
"What devices will it run on? WebOS contains some brilliant ideas and great design, but let’s face it: it still has catching up to do. Who’s going to be motivated to do that hard work now?" Gruber said in a Friday blog post. "I hope I’m wrong, but I think this is just the difference between putting your dog down and letting it free on a distant mountain road."