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HP puts webOS on open source track

HP announced today that it will “contribute” its webOS operating system to the open source community.

The software, along with the companion ENYO application framework, now will be available under an open source license to anyone who wants to use the mobile OS first created by Palm for the Pre line of smartphones. HP plans to be an “active participant and investor” in the open source initiative, but didn’t say how or to what extent.

HP’s announcement today was short on details. According to a statement, HP will “engage the open source community to help define the charter of the … project.”

The project’s “operating principles” include speeding up open development of webOS, and creating a “transparent” governance model to avoid fragmenting the platform, HP said.

Whether anyone will take HP up on the contribution remains to be seen. In the statement, the company stressed that webOS offers developers a single integrated software stack and portability across different hardware architectures. Device makers could use the same software — and application development model — in a wide range of mobile products.

The decision is something of a reprieve for the mobile platform. Originally designed by Palm, and presented in the first Palm Pre smartphone in mid-2009, webOS was praised by developers who adopted it. Mobile applications could be written entirely in JavaScript, HTML and Cascading Style Sheets, all familiar to Web developers. It was designed as a multi-tasking OS with features to minimise an array of potential problems in running several mobile apps at once. And the UI was praised as offering a simple, intuitive user experience.

But Palm stumbled when buyers and developers didn’t flock to the products and platform. In April 2010, HP announced it was buying the company, for $1.2 billion, with the intent of launching an aggressive push into mobile computing and telephony products. Last summer, HP launched its first webOS tablet, the HP TouchPad, which met with mixed reviews.

Just 49 days later, then-CEO Leo Apotheker cancelled the product and HP’s future with webOS, as part of a controversial corporate restructuring. Not long after that, HP’s board canceled Apotheker’s contract and board member Meg Whitman was named the new CEO and president. She promised a review of the operating system’s fate.

In a statement today, Whitman is quoted as saying that webOS is the only platform “designed from the ground up to be mobile, cloud-connected and scalable.” Contributing the firmware to open source “unleashes the creativity of the open source community.”

After the TouchPad was cancelled, Network World blogger Alan Shimel encouraged HP to consider an open source direction for the OS. Among other benefits, he wrote, an “open source WebOS could also attract developers who may have been wary of working on the OS while HP owned it. A critical mass of developers and a few hardware suppliers and WebOS would be well on its way.”

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