HP open-sourcing Web OS is a gutsy move

HP announced this week that it’s not going to sell Web OS–the operating system it bought the remnants of Palm to get–and plans to open-source the platform, as well as re-introduce tablets based on it sometime in the distant future.

The move isn’t guaranteed to work, but I think it’s a shrewd move.

At this point, the patents from Web OS are likely to be worth more than the OS itself. In the long run, HP can probably make more money by licensing patents from it than it could make from selling the platform. Looking at it that way, anything HP is able to make off Web OS-based products is a bonus. The long timeframe for returning to market suggests that’s exactly how HP is thinking.

Open-sourcing a project isn’t a quick fix. Netscape open-sourced Communicator way back in 1998, but Firefox didn’t appear until 2004 and didn’t emerge as a popular alternative browser for another year or so. Firefox is arguably Open Source’s biggest success story. It takes time for an open-source project to gain popular support and developer mindshare, especially when that project competes with another existing open-source project, as it does in this case–Android.

Firebird is another example of a closed-source program going Open Source. Born of Borland’s Interbase in 2000, Firebird is another relational SQL database. The project is still alive, but even in spite of all of the questions surrounding MySQL and it being owned by Oracle, Firebird hasn’t become a dominant open-source SQL database. MySQL and PostgresSQL were the two biggest open-source SQL databases in 2000, and they’re still the two biggest in 2011. Interbase was overshadowed as a commercial product, and as an Open Source product, Firebird remains overshadowed.

One thing Web OS has going for it that Firebird didn’t was the lack of openness in the competition. I think it’s a safe bet that some developers will prefer to be involved in the creation of new versions, rather than getting source code from Google whenever it deems a new version ready. That’s probably what HP is counting on. And that’s probably why HP is hedging its bets by saying it may not re-introduce its own Web OS-based tablets until as late as 2013, which is an eternity in this field. It’s a long way off, but it may take that long for an open-source version of Web OS to come into its own. Given Firefox’s history, 2013 sounds like an aggressive target date.

Is that fast enough? It’s anyone’s guess. Sooner is obviously better, but the tablet market is still very young. For all intents and purposes, the modern tablet market started in April 2010, which is just 19 months ago. Apple has a head start, but consider the smartphone market began around 2000 or so (perhaps as early as 1997). RIM (the Blackberry people) didn’t get into the game until 2002, but quickly became dominant. Apple got into that game in 2007, and Google in 2008. Few would argue those two latecomers are the dominant players in smartphones now, through a combination of marketing, ease of use, and third-party development.

Neither game is necessarily over. If the new open-source Web OS can bring something new and compelling to the table, it can compete. Since tablets are media consumption devices more than media creation devices, the barrier to change is lower. You can surf the Web, read e-books, listen to music, and play video on any tablet.

HP lost valuable time and momentum this year. Leo Apotheker decided HP couldn’t overcome that obstacle; his successor Meg Whitman disagrees. I’m more inclined to agree with Meg Whitman than Leo Apotheker.

It’s a risk, but I applaud HP for taking it.

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