Wednesday, August 17, 2011

HP's WebOS opportunity

Update, August 18, 2011: HP just announced that it is discontinuing all its webOS-based hardware devices, including the TouchPad tablet and smartphones. According the The Wall Street Journal, it will hold on to the webOS operating system and will pursue licensing it to other companies.

Google's decision to acquire Motorola Mobility has thrown the Android ecosystem into chaos: Will Google really treat Motorola no differently than any other Android licensee, or will it give Motorola priority for new features and new versions of Android? Will Google be able to stay focused on releasing new versions of Android that are competitive with iOS while dealing with the Motorola acquisition?

Google's acquisition opens the door for Microsoft to become an alternative operating system vendor for some of Android's licensees, but Microsoft's partnership with Nokia has spawned its own concerns: Nokia clearly has "favored nation" status in the Windows Phone ecosystem. As a result, Microsoft may be less able to capitalize on Google's decision than it would first appear.

The company that might have the best opportunity to capitalize on Google's acquisition is HP, if it can execute quickly and decisively (always a big if when talking about HP). WebOS is an excellent operating system, but it's been crippled by HP's indecision in launching new products, and its inability to run an effective developer program. AllThingsD reported yesterday that Best Buy has taken delivery of 270,000 HP TouchPads but has only sold 25,000 of them. Best Buy is reportedly demanding that HP take back its inventory of tablets. Now, HP is launching a new line of webOS-based smartphones in Europe, but the company's chances of success aren't much better in the smartphone market than they are right now in tablets.

A number of observers have suggested that HP should license webOS, but for this plan to be successful, HP has to follow a more radical course. Here's the approach that I believe HP should take:
  1. Set up a Mozilla-like organization to run future webOS development, and in particular, run the developer program. This organization would insure that all licensees have a common code base to work from, and that webOS apps work on the widest possible range of devices. One goal would be to avoid the proliferation of versions that frustrates Android developers.
  2. Give licensees partial ownership of webOS and the development organization. That would give the licensees a say in the future direction of the operating system.
  3. Licensees would invest in the development organization rather than pay royalties. (There could be two classes of licensees: One that owns a stake in the development organization, and another that pays royalties in lieu of investing in the development organization.)
  4. Once the development organization is launched and licensees sign on, HP would drop its smartphone line. HP would remain in the tablet business, and could use webOS throughout its product line. The company would have the option to reenter the smartphone business after a number of years.
I have to believe that a joint venture development company, with talent contributed by companies such as Samsung and HTC, as well as HP, could do a much better job managing and promoting the webOS platform than HP alone. You may say, "Isn't this what Nokia tried to do with Symbian?". Yes, Nokia established the Symbian Foundation and open-sourced the operating system, then brought it back in-house and made the license proprietary. The problem was that Nokia wanted it both ways--the company wanted to control the development of Symbian but also wanted its competitors to license it. If HP is to succeed in licensing webOS, it has to truly cede control to a joint venture with its licensees, and it has to (at least temporarily) get out of the smartphone business.

In the long run, if HP establishes webOS as an industry standard for mobile devices, its acquisition of Palm will have been worth it, even if the company gives up a minor revenue stream from smartphones
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