Will WebOS rise again?

Reviews of HP's ill-fated TouchPad were unanimous: the hardware wasn't anything special, but the operating system, WebOS, was great. When HP killed off its WebOS tablet, pundits began to speculate: would it die with the tablet? Would it be sold to a rival firm, such as Amazon? Would HP keep it locked away forever?

This week, we finally found out the answer. HP's making WebOS open source, which means anybody who wants to tinker with it can. Will WebOS rise again?

By making the software open source, HP enables any tablet or smartphone firm to make WebOS devices without paying royalties, and potentially opens the operating system up to development by anybody with a bright idea. It also offers tablet firms an alternative to Android, which is currently plagued by patent infringement lawsuits: HP can effectively say to other firms: "Here's an operating system you can use without being sued".

If WebOS gets picked up by a big hardware firm - HTC, for example - it could quickly become a big deal. Then again, if HP keeps shooting itself in the foot then it might not become a big deal at all. No sooner had HP announced that it was making WebOS open source, it also announced that it might go back to making its own WebOS tablets in 2013.

In effect, then, HP is giving out a hopelessly mixed message: on the one hand it's saying "it's yours! Take it!" and on the other it's saying "But only for a few months, because we're going to compete directly with you!" For manufacturers considering whether to sink millions into WebOS development, that's unlikely to make the operating system particularly appealing.

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