On webOS Going Open Source

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.

Ecosystem/Community

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.

Google Chrome OS

The big news over the past 24 hours is the announcement of Google Chrome OS. Effectively Google Chrome OS is a stripped down Linux Kernel with just enough to boot Chrome/WebKit as it’s main UI. The exact UI paradigm hasn’t been reveled as of yet. Google claims:

Speed, simplicity and security are the key aspects of Google Chrome OS. We’re designing the OS to be fast and lightweight, to start-up and get you onto the web in a few seconds. The user interface is minimal to stay out of your way, and most of the user experience takes place on the web. And as we did for the Google Chrome browser, we are going back to the basics and completely redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS so that users don’t have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates. It should just work.

It’s an interesting and somewhat bold statement.

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Palm Pre Thoughts

The big news today seems to be the new Palm Pre. It’s a rather beautiful device, though I’m not sure it will save Palm.

  • Developer API – Palm choose to make it literally a “WebOS” (that’s what they call it). Applications are written using HTML5, CSS, JS (via WebKit) and there are API’s to access a variety of services. While cool this does have a big downside. There’s no real way to make it into the gaming platform that the iPhone is becoming. <canvas/> can only take you so far animation wise, not to mention JS isn’t really an ideal language to make a full length game. These applications are essentially widgets. That’s fine for many/most mobile apps, but not all. It also doesn’t allow you to take advantage of 3rd party libraries that aren’t on the device or written in JS.
  • Development Community – Palm is going to have a tough time building a dedicated development community. There will be lots of “widgets” ported to the device, but with the iPhone being mandatory for hot new apps, Android showing lots of potential and backing, and BackBerry being ubiquitous, how many more platforms can developers target in this economy? There’s also Windows Mobile with an established user base. They will need to sell a lot of devices to attract developers.
  • Many Features Easily Duplicated – It has copy/paste, MMS, IM, and other things many people gripe about the iPhone not having. That said, they can be implemented in a software upgrade on the iPhone leveling out the playing field quickly. Hardware wise, the removable battery and 3MP camera can’t be easily duplicated. Those are solid enhancements.
  • Background Applications – Since it’s WebOS, the “applications” are nothing more than tabs in a browser. Application switching is then nothing more than switching tabs. How will this behave in real life? Hard to say. I’m hoping each “application” is isolated into it’s own process similar to Google Chrome rather than one process. I’m not sure how they balance CPU time between competing processes.
  • Battery Life – I can’t find much on battery life. I presume that depends on application usage but it’s not prominent on the Palm site or any review I’ve seen so far.

I should note that since it’s API is essentially building widgets using web technologies, don’t expect to see a Mozilla browser anytime soon. The closest you’d get is a Fennec-like UI built on and around WebKit. It could prove to be an interesting UI experiment, but it won’t share the same technologies.

It’s ironic but so far Windows, Android and BlackBerry are the only major mobile OS’s that allow 3rd party applications to be downloaded directly to the device unrestricted. Maemo does as well, but it’s more internet tablets. iPhone while based on open source require you go through a proprietary app store. Both the iPhone and Android have a kill switch so that they can terminate software that doesn’t abide by their policies. Palm (also based on open source Linux) won’t even allow true native applications so far.

It’s a cool device, but I wouldn’t declare Palm back from the dead yet, nor would I declare them dead. Like I said, it’s competing with 3 mega platforms for not only users, but developers whose applications will bring in users.

Update [1/9/2009 @ 9:45 AM EST]:Clarified App store requirement is for iPhone and that a kill switch exists on both the iPhone and Android.

Facebook Acquires Parakey

According to TechCrunch Parakey was acquired by Facebook. For those who haven’t been following. Parakey was Blake Ross and Joe Hewitt’s new venture. Their priors include a certain cvs branch that spawned a certain web browser and a certain developer extension for the browser called Firebug (released through Parakey according to the footer). I’m guessing this isn’t part of a plan for a “WebOS” but to strengthen the Facebook Platform.

For the record Facebook is a pretty decent open source contributor as well as a consumer. Hopefully this means that Blake’s intention to open source most of Parakey will still hold true. Some more work on Firebug would also be awesome.

Congrats to Blake and Joe!