Mobile // Mobile Devices
02:10 PM
Eric Zeman
Eric Zeman

Would Licensing webOS Help Or Hurt HP?

HP also plans to add webOS to printers, laptops, and other devices, which might let the company collect the critical mass it needs to compete with the big boys.

Both HP CEO Leo Apotheker and Jon Rubinstein, the former CEO of Palm, preached the same message on different stages Wednesday: They'd consider licensing webOS to others.

Apotheker was speaking at the Wall Street Journal's AllThingsD conference. In response to questions from Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher, he said, "I happen to believe that webOS is a uniquely outstanding operating system. It's not correct to believe that it should only be on HP devices. There are all kinds of other people who want to make whatever kind of hardware they make and would like to connect them to the Internet. We'll make [webOS] available to enterprises and to SMBs. It will run on lots of HP devices."

Further, speaking hypothetically, he mentioned that if a company such as HTC knocked on HP's door and asked for permission to make a webOS-based device, HP would be happy to have a conversation about that. This is interesting for several reasons.

First and foremost, all the webOS-based phones that HP/Palm have made so far suck. (I'm speaking only about the hardware; for the record, I like webOS.) Not one of them is exceptional. At some point in the last few years, HP (nee Palm) lost the ability to design and manufacture good hardware. The Pre, Pre 2, Pixi, and Veer 4G all share similar flaws in basic usability and quality.

Truthfully, HP's hardware chops should already have come into play, as it has fully owned Palm for nearly a year at this point. The fact that the Veer--which reeks of Palm's design language--even made it off the drawing board is depressing on many levels.

Rubinstein couched his words a bit more delicately than Apotheker. Speaking at Qualcomm's Uplinq conference, he said, "HP is more than willing to partner with one or two special companies." Ones that might bring "something special to the ecosystem."

Special companies, eh? In other words, it's not going to make webOS available to just anyone who wants to use it. Rubinstein added that HP was "not in the licensing business."

So what would licensing webOS, even to just one or two companies, accomplish? If HP wants webOS to truly take off, it needs the platform to be packaged in a much more compelling wrapper.

Let a company with amazing design acumen create some class-leading smartphones with the latest version of webOS on board, and HP might start to gain some traction in the consumer market. If--and that's a big if--an HP partner can craft a successful webOS handset, then the platform could have more of a future. This is the chief benefit licensing the operating system would have, because there's no way HP is going to turn a profit (or recover the cost of purchasing Palm) by licensing out the platform. Microsoft, it ain't.

Were this strategy to fail, however, it could easily spell doom for the platform.

Add this to HP's plans to add webOS to printers, laptops, and other devices, and the company could actually collect the critical mass it needs to compete with the big boys. Speaking of which, Apotheker was brazen in his comments. He admitted that HP is fighting for third place with Microsoft in terms of platform success behind Google and Apple (where's RIM?). He believes, however, that HP and webOS will eventually win out as the third-most popular smartphone platform.

Brave words, Apotheker. Let's revisit them in six months, shall we?

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