HP TouchPad

HP has announced that it will turn webOS into an open source project. The company paid $1.2 billion to acquire Palm and its webOS mobile operating system last year, and sunk billions of additional dollars into developing webOS smartphones and tablets before killing the hardware division this summer.

Now HP is hoping to keep webOS alive by making it open source software which will be available for developers, hardware makers, and others to use under an open source license.

The ENYO application framework will also be released as open source software soon.

HP will continue to contribute to the development and support of the operating system, but it doesn’t look like HP has found any major partners willing to commit to making products that use the operating system yet. So it’s still not clear how (or if) HP plans to make money on its webOS investments over the long run.

Today’s announcement is reasonably good news for anyone holding on to an HP TouchPad tablet or webOS smartphone such as the Pre 2, since it could be much easier for open source developers to continue tweaking and improving the software. But unless HP or other companies commits to releasing new hardware designed to run webOS, the operating system’s days look about as numbered as Symbian’s.

HP could still decide to build new devices using webOS in the future. The decision to kill off webOS hardware was made on former CEO Leo Apotheker’s watch, and new CEO Meg Whitman may have a different vision for tablets and phones.

The mobile operating system certainly has its strengths. WebOS handles multitasking beautifully, allowing you to flip between previews of currently open apps or flick the “cards” to the top of the screen to close apps. Apps that are opened together are also grouped together in stacks. For instance, if you open the web browser by clicking a link in the email app, the email and browser cards will be stacked together.

The webOS “Just Type” feature also makes it easy to launch apps, look up contacts, search the web, and perform many other options simply by typing in the search box on the home screen.

But webOS hasn’t had the kind of commercial success that Google Android and Apple iOS have. It’s possble that only about 4 million people have ever registered webOS devices.

That could change if hardware makers and wireless carriers start to treat webOS as a serious alternative to Android.

On the other hand, as open source software there’s now a chance that we could see webOS fans work to keep the software alive even if no new hardware ever hits the market. Right now there’s an active community of hackers working to port Android to webOS devices such as the HP TouchPad. Maybe one day we’ll see hackers working just as hard to install webOS on devices that ship with Android or other operating systems.

If you’re in the market for a webOS tablet, HP plans to sell a limited number of refurbished TouchPads on eBay this weekend for $99 and up.

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