Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What the new WebOS foundation can do to make WebOS a success

HP has done the right thing and is contributing WebOS to the community by making it Open Source. This alone won't guarantee it's longevity. But WebOS fans can take heart at the success of FireFox as proof of how a closed source product can live on as an open source project. The success of FireFox is the success of the Mozilla foundation. The history lesson is best left to Wikipedia. But the model of success is there and should be emulated where possible. Namely
  • establishing a source of income to keep operating in the good times and the bad, fund advocacy and publicity. The deal with Google is where the largest chunk of money comes in
  • creating an framework where all forms of contribution are accepted - too radical or too specific to be rolled into the general application? Create a plug-in!
  • knowing when to rethink things. Firefox was born when they came to a realization that the Mozilla Suite, which included the browser, was too big and slow. By rethinking their goals when it came to the browser and making difficult changes, they made a browser that could compete with Internet Explorer and brought about a large change in the browser market. 
Unfortunately, the tablet OS market is more complex and challenging. While the Mozilla Foundation dealt with software only, the WebOS Foundation has to deal with both software and hardware. The first thing it has to do is establish a reference hardware design. The main purpose here is to stay relevant. By having a reference design that can be copied by the massive factories in China for cheap tablets, it increases WebOS's market share. This in turn will reward the developers who have stuck with WebOS with more potential customers.
Which brings me to the next thing the WebOS Foundation has to do, run an official marketplace. This is where those developers will find customers for apps as well as applications. This can serve, in the future, as a source of income. Right now, it should run it for a very low cut, say 5% for paid apps, to not put off developers. A key success to remain relevant in the consumer space is to have a diverse set of free or cheap apps. Developers are already focused on iPhone and Andriod apps. Windows 8 is on the horizon. While it may not be able to compete on total number of apps, there should be some effort to ensure key apps appear on WebOS too. Other than Angry Birds.
Following on above, it should also establish working relationships with phone manufacturers to build WebOS-based phones. Phone manufacturers will be interested in the royalty-free concept of using WebOS but realize they would need expertise developing the phone. Initially, this will have to be taken up by the foundation or a subsidiary to guide the development process. This could be another source of income for the foundation. But it should be the phone manufacturer's responsibility to develop updates to match updated version of the WebOS. This way, the manufacturers will determine how long they need to support a particular model. The foundation should also act as matchmaker with WebOS developers to provide the key apps that are bundled with the phone.
At a later stage, the foundation can take a step back, allowing developers to work directly with phone and tablet manufacturers. This would mimic the RedHat model where the developers would contribute code to the main OS, while working with their customers to build solutions for them. The foundation will maintain a reference development platform or reference virtual machines for testing and accreditation. This would not be unprecedented as it is much like what android is doing and palm did in the past.

One of the foundation's activities should be to help build businesses that will use WebOS in their products. It could target companies that need a graphical OS to provide a user interface for their devices. This is for products that users don't care what OS it is running on, like car dash system and smart fridges. HP can help start the ball rolling by building printers that run a simple form of WebOS to drive the interface. HP should go ahead and build that side "window" into the PC that others built with windows components.
Expand on that concept and try a new computing paradigm: when a user boots up a PC, WebOS is started to access the web and basic functions including multimedia while windows fully boots in the background.. There will be links in WebOS to select installed Windows application. Once the user selects some powerful windows programs, it would switch into windows 7 / 8 to run those program. MS would declare that illegal before you even sit down in the meeting to tell them about that. Possibly hold back boot authorization (UEFI) for it. This approach can help with power consumption with Window only started once an application is selected to save on battery. A concept in reverse was demonstrated at CES while this was being written. In that demonstration, Windows started up first and was switched to a ARM based OS later to save energy. That's like a hybrid car starting on the gas engine and switching to electric when cruising.
The WebOS foundation has it's work cut out. While conventional wisdom says that the market is for IOS and Android, there are still niches where WebOS can be successful. As a platform for tablet systems in schools, for example. A system to truly reduce/replace paper books. WebOS should not limit itself nor it's ambition either. Can you see WebOS as the third Linux environment with KDE and GNOME?

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