Tech news these days shouldn’t be read by people with cardiac conditions or pregnant women. If Google’s surprise buyout of Motorola wasn’t enough bombshells for the week, Hewlett-Packard has announced that it will stop selling hardware based on the webOS.
webOS is a proprietary mobile operating system running on the Linux kernel. It was introduced by Palm in January 2009 as the successor to Palm OS with web technologies, open architecture, and multitasking capabilities. HP acquired webOS and the talent that developed it as part of its $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm last year. HP’s vision promised using the software in the entire device ecosystem phones and tablets to PCs and printers. Earlier this year, HP announced plans of installing a version of webOS on all HP desktop and notebook computers running Windows by 2012.
In a dramatic turn of events though, HP has announced that it will discontinue operations for webOS devices, specifically the TouchPad launched recently and the webOS phones. There has been no specific comment for the customers who have bought a TouchPad already. Although webOS was hailed as a great platform and had a niche fan following amongst consumers and developers, HP hasn’t brought out many products based on the operating system. The existing Pre and Pixi devices lost significant market, as well as mind, share. HP’s renewed effort around the platform saw light last month with the launch of TouchPad, a webOS based tablet device. The product, though, received lacklustre reviews and poor sales have led to a series of price cuts and unsold stock at several retailers like Best Buy. These devices never showcased the agility and experience of webOS in the way that they should have.
HP has indicated that the deal could have paid off if they had invested two to four years and fight off a strong challenge by other players in the same space: Apple, Google, and even Microsoft. Also, HP is now looking at “strategic alternatives for its Personal Systems Group” which indicates their intent to get out of the hardware game and move in the direction of software and services. This brings back the memories of 2005 when Lenovo acquired the ThinkPad product line from IBM for approximately $1.75 billion.
HP has offered little certainty and no comments on the future of webOS. Keeping the assumptions and crystal ball gazing aside, HP’s announcement has only been about dumping the webOS devices, with no comment on the platform. Richard Kerris, Developer Relations Executive at HP posted a tweet that webOS “is an awesome software platform and now we can explore the best hardware partner for it.” However, the lack of clear statements on what lies ahead for webOS has given an impression that it is dead in the water, which is unfortunate for a great product and one which is held in high regard by most HP employees.
In the industry ecosystem of today, some would wonder if HP could salvage some value out of Palm’s acquisition via the intellectual property (IP) portfolio of Palm and webOS. HP had 37,000 patents at the end of its last fiscal year and 33,000 patents the year before. The Palm acquisition would have added anywhere between 1500-4000 patents. Since Palm was one of the pioneers in the innovation around personal digital assistants and a smartphone market leader at one time, there is a good chance that Palm boasts of some valuable, foundational patents. Patent portfolios are tricky and whether they could turn around HP’s investment in any good measure is to be seen.
Also, in June this year, HP had indicated that it was open to licensing webOS to partners who would take the OS in areas where HP didn’t do business in. A licensing revenue stream, although based on volumes since per-device license is very small, might interest HP especially now that they intend to spin-off the devices unit. HP would be looking for hardware partners like Samsung and HTC if they would consider alternate paths in the current Android rage.
The Motorola acquisition by Google, the makers of Android operating system, would have already irked several hardware partners since it brings Google in direct competition with them. They have reasons to worry if Motorola receives early access to Android builds or any favouritism to build flagship devices. Early this week, many wondered if the acquisition will bring webOS into greater focus since it could be provide alternative from the Microsoft-Nokia or Google-Motorola camp, as the handset makers would see.
There are no clear answers, and HP hasn’t offered any specific roadmap. The tech news these days is a fantasy writer’s canvas with a shock and awe in good measure.