webOS is going open source. I’ll start by saying I’m rooting for webOS. I’m skeptical webOS will have much success given the announcement. An OS is a huge undertaking. A mobile OS is even more difficult.
Define “open source”
The press release says “underlying code of webOS available under an open source license”. Technically Apple can say the same thing with OS X and iOS*. Working on or with an OS is an investment. A very large investment. If it’s not complete or nearly complete, it’s not going to fly. Similarly unless the license is free enough, it’s not worth the investment. It sounds like it will be pretty inclusive and liberally licensed (Apache could be a good choice), but until that happens, I wouldn’t place any bets. Especially with HP’s seemingly bizarre behavior lately.
Building an ecosystem and community around that is going to be tough. Years ago with no competition except a stale IE. AOL gave $2M US Dollars to start the Mozilla Foundation and that had open source legs for years already under Netscape. While few people knew of “Mozilla” and even “Firefox” both in name and concept were a while away, it was a popular browser on Linux and in some more technical crowds. webOS is starting off against Google Android. Google has resources. Google isn’t Microsoft in this story. Google won’t be Microsoft.
Mozilla was also “just” a browser with much less surface area than a mobile OS. By that I mean hardware and dealing with the Linux community intricacies. Releasing the source alone won’t do it. HP reportedly had about 500 engineers working on webOS. That’s the type of effort it takes. Google puts substantial resources behind Android.
Lastly, people don’t install open source OS’s on their phones. They don’t install any OS’s on their phones except upgrades. That means hardware partners are critical for any viability. Hardware vendors already have deals and plans with Google. This is going to be tough to penetrate. Mozilla never had much luck getting desktops to ship with Firefox. The vast majority of users choose Firefox. On desktops, at least for now that is an option. On mobile hardware that’s not generally the case.
Even if someone comes up with a way to root and “upgrade” Android and/or iPhone devices to run webOS, you can be sure hardware vendors and mobile providers will be in front of Congress the next morning to outlaw the practice and stop it (or claim it’s “wiretapping”). Given the money behind App Stores and mobile payments, which is already a mess, there’s too much money there. These “rogue” devices could be banned from major networks if it got traction.
I’d love to see it survive and thrive. I’d love to see a PC like community of hardware vendors. But it’s going to be an uphill battle.
More than likely, pieces will be taken and strapped to Android as a HTML5 based Adobe Air like platform for building/deploying apps. It may also find some use in non-mobile purposes from entertainment devices to home alarms. As more devices become ARM based computers vs. microcontrollers, webOS like Android could be a way to get started building an interface. I see that as being more likely than continuing as a mobile OS.
A successful open source project takes a lot more than most give it credit for. Source alone doesn’t do it. It’s the community and ecosystem that sustains a project, not a tarball.
* I’d consider Android half open considering it does source dumps and develops largely in private.