Hewlett-Packard will turn the smartphone software it acquired with the purchase of Palm into an open-source project akin to Google’s Android, giving it the potential to emerge as a stronger competitor in the hotly contested field.
Meg Whitman, HP chief executive, announced the decision internally on Friday, saying that the company would continue to invest in developing the webOS operating system and would now also make it easier for outsiders to improve.
Ms Whitman recently succeeded chief executive Léo Apotheker, who had killed HP tablets and smartphones based on webOS and left the fate of the underlying software hanging. Like him, she found that HP would have to spend too much to make a go of webOS against Apple and Google.
While praised by critics, webOS has suffered for failing to get as many programmers working on applications as Apple has for iOS and Google has with Android. HP explored options including licensing it out to device makers and selling it outright.
The move to make it open-source will not bring HP any revenue in the short term and leaves its fate to the crowd. It may prove too late to generate momentum, as happened when Sun Microsystems donated the code for Solaris, its own operating system.
It also leaves unresolved whether HP will try again with its own mobile hardware, beyond the devices relying on versions of Windows and possibly Android.
But, in the longer term, webOS survives and has the possibility of being embraced by handset makers or others that could find new uses for it.
After discontinuing the webOS-based TouchPad, HP was surprised by the number of enthusiasts who bought the discounted overstock. It even manufactured more, though that might have been driven by commitments to component suppliers.
WebOS was designed from the beginning for small devices that are connected to the internet and in some ways was ahead of Apple and Google. It merges the information of the same type presented to the users, such as contact information, even when the data is stored in multiple places, such as a Facebook application on the device and a Gmail address book being drawn on from the cloud.
WebOS was the key prize in HP’s decision in April 2010, under Mr Apotheker’s predecessor, to buy struggling pioneer Palm for $1.2bn. But HP could not capitalise quickly enough, and Mr Apotheker said much greater and more risky investments in hardware would have been needed to compete.
Ms Whitman in October reversed a more controversial decision by the software-oriented Mr Apotheker to pursue a spin-off of the company’s world-leading PC division.