By promising to release the mobile operating system to the open source community, Hewlett-Packard isn’t giving it much of a future, say analysts

Did HP give webOS ‘a death sentence’?
SEATTLE — As an open-source project with uncertain backing, webOS has a tough road ahead of it, say industry analysts of Hewlett-Packard Co.’s decision to set the mobile operating system free.

“This is a death sentence but an honorable death sentence,” said Avi Greengart, an analyst with Current Analysis. “HP is saying, ‘We’re washing our hands of this but making it available for anyone to play with as they see fit.’””

HP said Friday that it will contribute the code behind webOS to the open-source community. But the company left a number of unanswered questions that have left experts to wonder if webOS has a future.

For instance, while HP [NYSE: HPQ] said it would “continue to be active” in supporting and developing webOS, it didn’t say how exactly it would support it. Since a successful mobile OS would likely require significant backing, analysts wondered if webOS will attract enough investment. “It can’t exist by itself as a science experiment,” said Will Stofega, an analyst with IDC. “It has to get support.”

Such backing will be key for developing the OS and for attracting application developers.

“If you were really looking to go out and build an ecosystem around your product, this probably isn’t the one with the greatest traction,” Greengart said. A phone maker targeting markets in the West, where the user expectation is “gimme apps or gimme death,” is not going to choose webOS, he said.

That’s because even under Palm and HP, webOS struggled to attract application developers. In August HP announced it was abandoning webOS in light of dimsal sales for its TouchPad tablet.

Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates agreed that without a driving force behind webOS, it’s unlikely to be successful. “Why is Android successful? It’s not because it’s open source. It’s because it’s driven by Google,” he said.

WebOS runs the risk of following other Linux-based projects that have tended to progress slowly, he said. “The mobile world works at 10 times that pace,” Gold said.

HP didn’t specify which open-source license it would release the code under. Jay Lyman, a senior analyst at The 451 Group, expects it to use an Apache license. It’s one of the more permissive licenses, allowing developers to mix open source with their own proprietary code and sell products that use the combined code, he said.

HP also did not say when it will make the code available. Some efforts to move proprietary code to open source drag on for lengthy periods of time, as with Nokia’s Symbian OS. However, that was a complicated situation since Nokia had some of its intellectual property wrapped up in the code, Lyman said.

He expects the process for webOS to be less complex, and since it is being open sourced by HP, a major user and supporter of Linux, the code might be released by the first half of next year, he said.

Still, questions remain about which hardware vendors will use webOS.

Some analysts said the availability of the webOS code might prove attractive to vendors who were made nervous about Google’s acquisition of Motorola, or, like HTC, have struggled to differentiate their Android products. Still, few expect one of the top mobile phone makers to end up using the software.

LG, which has been late to the smartphone market and has a relatively small market share, might take an interest in webOS, said Chris Hazelton, an analyst with The 451 Group. A company looking to build a device like Amazon’s Kindle Fire, which is not dependent on existing applications and services, might also be interested, he said. “There is a hunger for a high-level OS that is low cost and doesn’t come with baggage,” he said.

WebOS could also prove attractive to vendors worried about the increasing legal attacks on Android. “WebOS might represent an option that has less of that IP baggage,” Lyman said.

Hobbiests and developers are also likely to show some interest in webOS, Greengart said. In addition, hardware vendors in China might use webOS in that country, he said.

HP itself might also develop products using the software. CEO Meg Whitman on Friday told The Verge that HP might make tablets using webOS. However, an HP spokesman later downplayed the idea, saying the company won’t rule out making webOS-based hardware, but that it’s not making any commitments.

The analysts all praised webOS for its quality, and they blamed its problems on its late arrival to market. “It’s great,” said IDC’s Stofega. “There’s really no doubt about that.”

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