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WebOS’s new life as HP’s Trojan horse

webOS from HP/Palm on different screens

The Google/Motorola deal suddenly makes it relevant to take a closer look at the other OS platforms on the market. Most industry observers in the mobile space have already written off HP/Palm’s webOS as a dead platform. From a smartphone perspective, this is obvious at first sight. With two percent of smartphone users in their only market (US), negligible global sales, and a thin app store, they don’t have much going for them. HP recently released a tablet powered by webOS but according to the reviewers the product is clumsy and behind the competition. There is talk about Samsung licensing webOS for a few handsets but no products have hit the shelves yet.

HP/webOS can not currently compete head to head with Apple and Android, even though the webOS technical platform is excellent. The platform is designed for true multitasking and for running web apps based on HTML5/JavaScript/CCS with hardware accelerated execution.

But there are a couple of scenarios where webOS can be viable. For example, if HTML5 becomes dominant and native apps fade into oblivion. In that case, the advantage of the market leaders’ huge app stores will become irrelevant and webOS will be able to compete on a level playing field. As webOS is optimized for HTML5 from the beginning, there is a good chance that apps will work better than on the competing platforms. If other OEMs become wary of using Android after Google’s Motorola purchase, webOS might be more attractive for licensing. An additional factor that could reinforce this scenario is the rise of cloud computing. If all this plays out, handset OEMs and mobile operators might consider webOS as a way of reducing the market power of Android, Microsoft, and Apple. But even if native apps are sidelined by HTML5, the smartphone market leaders will still have a huge advantage due to their brand, size, and market share.

However, if the game plan changes, webOS could reappear as a serious contender. If and when the cloud becomes the dominant computing paradigm, webOS will be a good fit for a range of devices. The drawback is that the mobile connection to the smartphone will always be unreliable and rather slow. If all your documents, contacts, messaging and apps are stored in the cloud this will be a problem. Enter the PC (and to some extent the tablet). For the PC one usually has a reliable broadband connection. That is where cloud computing (and hence webOS) would work best. And this is the direction HP is moving in with webOS. HP will install webOS on all their products (PCs, tablets, printers etc.) from 2012.

Industry observers predict that HP wants webOS so it can provide users with “experience roaming” across all devices, where webOS will ensure that users can keep their profile and contacts. The Synergy feature in webOS aggregates all the user’s contacts and supports that strategy. Enyo is webOS’s development framework and supports handling different screen sizes in a seamless way. This is probably part of HP’s plan.

But HP’s bolder move is to install webOS together with the upcoming Windows 8 on the traditional PC. I don’t know if this was part of HP’s original strategy when they bought Palm in April 2010 or added by the new CEO Léo Apotheker who joined HP in September 2010. If webOS boots faster than Windows 8, if HP gives the user a choice between webOS and Windows during boot, and if the user primarily uses the PC to access HTML5 web apps in the cloud – then perhaps users will choose to boot webOS instead of Windows and gradually stop using the legacy Windows platform. This would give HP huge leverage in future price negotiations with Microsoft. WebOS will be HP’s Trojan horse for breaking into Microsoft’s territory on the PC.

Windows 8 is a radical departure from the traditional desktop keyboard and mouse paradigm. Windows 8 comes with full touch screen support and their UI theme (“Metro”) has a look and feel with tiles that plagiarizes WP7 and most of the smartphone/tablets platforms. The traditional legacy desktop environment is hidden inside tiles. Windows 8 is built for app development in – surprise surprise – HTML5. The same as webOS. If we disregard the support for legacy desktop apps, Windows 8 and webOS will almost be head to head competitors. And while webOS is optimized for web apps, Windows 8 has to carry a huge legacy baggage to keep backward compatibility.

Will one of the most insignificant smartphone platforms rise from the ashes and conquer the giant of the PC era? Don’t rule it out just yet.

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