HP's punt on WebOS

December 9, 2011: 3:09 PM ET

The future of the innovative-but-troubled mobile operating system is more or less resolved.

webosFORTUNE -- WebOS isn't completely dead, at least not yet. Hewlett-Packard today announced that it is taking its struggling mobile operating system open source -- a.k.a. making its code freely available to developers and other hardware manufacturers.

"WebOS is the only platform designed from the ground up to be mobile, cloud-connected and scalable," Meg Whitman, HP's (HPQ) new chief executive officer, said in a release. "By contributing this innovation, HP unleashes the creativity of the open source community to advance a new generation of applications and devices."

HP has flip-flopped on its WebOS strategy several times. After taking the helm last year, former CEO Leo Apotheker had said WebOS would power not only tablets but also HP's PCs and other devices. But in August he announced the company would kill off its TouchPad tablet and the WebOS smartphone line (and possibly spin off its personal computer business). He was fired shortly after.

Since taking over in September, current CEO Whitman has tried to clean up Apotheker's mess. First, she decided to keep the PC business. And now she has finally brought the WebOS question to some resolution.

But going open source doesn't necessarily mean WebOS has a future. Although the operating system, originally developed by Palm, was well reviewed and praised for its user interface and web-centric approach, WebOS devices never took off. (Check out 7 innovative features that couldn't save WebOS.) And to woo developers, companies not only need an attractive platform, they also need attractive devices out in the market. While HP says it will be an active participant and investor in its new open source project, it isn't recommitting itself to developing more WebOS devices.

What's more, Google's (GOOG) Android and Apple's (AAPL) iOS operating systems have already proven success with developers. Microsoft (MSFT) is also hoping its new Windows 8 app store will attract developers. So does WebOS stand a chance at making a comeback? Don't count on it.

As for HP's comeback, it's still too early to tell whether or not Whitman can turn things around. But her first two big decisions as CEO—to keep the PC business and to open source WebOS, were probably the best possible outcomes in a very messy situation. While the new, open source version of WebOS might not make it big, at least it provides HP with some closure.

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About This Author
Michal Lev-Ram
Michal Lev-Ram
Writer, Fortune

Based in Silicon Valley, Michal Lev-Ram covers enterprise and mobile technologies for FORTUNE. Prior to joining FORTUNE, she wrote for CNNMoney, Fast Company, Popular Science and other business and technology publications. She was also a staff writer at Business 2.0 and holds a B.A. in journalism from San Francisco State University.

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