WebOS developers mourn HP’s move but aren’t surprised

HP’s decision this week to dump its WebOS mobile devices leaves diehard developers who built for it in limbo, said a former HP and Palm software development official who nonetheless lauded the technology and expressed hope that WebOS could be revived somehow.

“I don’t know where [these WebOS application developers] go. WebOS was really unique in offering that level of freedom and hack-ability,” said Ben Galbraith, who was director of developer relations for Palm and then HP before leaving last year. A group of WebOS developers known as the “homebrew” community was able to build custom kernel patches and introduce overclocking, in which the processor was made to run faster than manufacturer specifications, Galbraith said, noting that he’s “sure [the homebrew developers] will find a way” to continue playing with WebOS on a variety of devices. Galbraith also raised the idea that WebOS will be licensed by HP for use on other systems. HP said in a statement it will continue to explore options to optimize the value of WebOS software going forward.

The discontinuation, which followed disappointing sales of WebOS-based devices, including the TouchPad tablet line, was initially shocking but perhaps expected, said Galbraith, in an interview. “The warning signs were clearly there,” that the TouchPad was not selling well, he said. With WebOS, developers had more leeway to explore the workings of the platform than has been allowed in other platforms, Gailbraith said. “We had thousands of people in the [WebOS developer] program,” he said. “WebOS captured the hearts and minds of developers because it was a truly open platform that really let developers explore all kinds of interesting directions with the apps they wrote.”

One WebOS application developer, Charles Taylor of Break.com, said he already has been building for rival platforms, including Apple iOS, Windows Phone, RIM Blackberry, and Google Android. “I wasn’t exclusively a WebOS developer, so it’s not so bad for me.” He recalled developing a successful, free application for WebOS for running Break.com videos. “We actually had a couple hundred thousand downloads of that app.” Taylor, who also does some freelance development, said he had been at an HP TouchPad developer event three weeks ago. He even received a free TouchPad.

Taylor added he had stopped developing for WebOS about a year ago, after the number of users started tapering off. Clients, meanwhile, were clamoring for iPhone and Android. “Most of them didn’t even know Palm exists.” But WebOS devices offered an interface to rival Apple’s and had one of the best multitasking systems, he said. Development was very easy because it was all based on HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS, he said. “I guess it’s a little disappointing that HP didn’t stick it out a little longer.”

Galbraith cited several possible reasons WebOS failed to make inroads with the public: Carrier dynamics, hardware issues, and being late to the application game. Still, WebOS had applications available, such as Yelp, Evernote, and Kindle. “WebOS had a slice of the stuff that was available everywhere.”

HP had acquired Palm last year for $1.2 billiion.

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