Earlier today, HP announced that they are open sourcing webOS, the mobile OS that they bought from Palm, inspired by BeOS, which Palm acquired a few years before that. Of course, these news comes as a consequence of HP canning their hardware platform, ending their tablet ambitions in a spectacular fire sale where they lost money on every device sold.
I’ve been a fan of the simplicity and elegance of webOS for a while. I even used BeOS back in it’s day. I didn’t really like the HP devices tho, and for me this is the optimal outcome. Provided that HP choses a liberal license, this means that webOS might actually get some adoption.
I even belive webOS would make a foundation for a nice Linux based desktop OS (Something Linux desperately needs), if provisions were made for a usable keyboard and touchpad multitouch gestures. Some of the leading internet pundits are less optimistic about this move than I am tho. John Gruber of Daring Fireball writes:
I hope I’m wrong, but I think this is just the difference between putting your dog down and letting it free on a distant mountain road.
Matt Gemmel takes it even further:
Want to know what happens when you make an operating system open? The same thing as when you leave your car open: sooner or later, it ends up smelling like a urinal.
Which I find a rather ridicolous notion. Certainly, a lot of Open Source apps were made by neckbeards with little or no design skills. However, WebOS is already very well designed, and even contains a nice style guide for apps. Just look how nice this Open Source twitter client for WebOS looks (phnx):
The distinguished interface style is already there, with gui widgets for app developers to use, which makes it more likely that usable and user friendly apps may be developed by an open source community. From running iusethis.com, I’ve noticed that when there’s already a defined style like on the mac, there’s a better chance of getting well designed open source apps.
Just look at QuickSilver, Cyberduck, Transmission and even Adium, widely used open source mac apps that are far ahead of their equivalent Linux-based apps. Being open source doesn’t have to mean design by comittee. It’s not like closed source is a guarantee of good design either.
What WebOS does need is improved performance, stability, better apis, and wider availability. The first things are absolutely things that we beardy Unix types are quite good at. Obviously Open Sourcing a codebase also means that professionals from several companies contribute, just look at the kind of boost this has given to Webkit. While on the subject of WebKit, the fact that WebOS apps are made using open web technologies is a very good fit for the open source community as well. Some of us that have been developing for the IOS platform are secretly yearning for a equally good open platform. Android is certainly not it.
Hopefully Open Sourcing with a liberal license will help with the last point too. I specially see Chinese cell phone producers as likely to pick up this opportunity, but possibly some of the existing android players as well. I’m even hoping there might be a distribution available for the iPad, and as I mentioned earlier, I am hoping to see webOS on prominent Linux distributions in the near future..
It’s not like this is a big closed source platform that is totally alien to the Open Source community. webOS already runs on linux, and uses a lot of the same open source technology we know and love (just check the open source information in the OS to verify this).
Hopefully HP will allow the current team to steward the OS forward. In my ideal world they would move the project to github and keep the contribution flow through pull requests where the core team is able to maintain a certain level of control.
If this happens, I see a bright future ahead for WebOS.