Monday, September 17, 2012

New beta release show OpenWebOS still has life to it

The OpenWebOS project announced recently the beta release of the storied OS. In a surprising twist, there were two build releases announced, the Desktop release and the OpenEmbedded release. Both are available via github.
The Desktop release allows developers to develop and test WebOS applications on the Ubuntu desktop. It's essentially, the System Manager running as an application. There is an effort on Troy Dawson's site to modify the existing install instructions to make the release work on Fedora but the site has problems at the time of writing. Depending on the complexity of the setup, this could either mean anything from changing the library location variables on the install or it could mean replacing Ubuntu specific libraries. 
The OpenEmbedded release is the actual OS release. The OpenWebOS project has decided to use the OpenEmbedded framework to base or build their OS release on. The software framework allows users to compile and build a Linux distribution for embedded systems. So this means that if an embedded hardware platform is supported by the OpenEmbedded framework, you can port WebOS to it. The layered structure of the framework allows for flexibility in compiling for multiple platform targets. As it stand currently, this includes ARM-based CPUs, several Texas Instruments single-board PCs and even the PowerPC. The framework also supports QEMU which mean developers don't have to load the OS image on real hardware to test. Which means that anybody who wishes to sell an OpenWebOS-based device can modify the configuration of the OpenEmbedded system (called recipes) to fit the chosen hardware target and just use it to generate an OpenWebOS distro. I believe the process is quite involved but not extremely difficult as the OpenEmbedded developers have gone to great lengths to ensure that people who would develop for the platform,  like the OpenWebOS project, is isolated from the development of the platform itself.
So what does this mean in the big picture? Especially for HP.

Since HP spinning off it's WebOS division into GRAM, a lightweight, start-up going into stealth-mode, even less details will be known as to what HP has in store for WebOS. GRAM clearly wishes to leverage the WebOS opensource eco-system but it is not clear whether they are putting out a product or a service or both.
The big question is whether there is space for another mobile/tablet OS. The answer is yes. Why? Because the majority of people do not care what technically their OS is. Their decision is more related to brand recognition than any technical know-how or even recommendations. There is space for one more flip because the majority of users don't care about apps or not 'married' to their platform specific apps yet.
If you are an Apple fanboy or an Android fanatic, this is something both of you can agree on to ignore. But the reality is many smartphone users don't install additional apps. The just use what came with the phone. Which is why Android phone makers spend a lot of effort on skinning their Androids. So as long as this is the case, the success of another mobile/tablet OS relies on the success of a brand promotion effort.
The first time around, WebOS was competing for a market consisting of technology-aware buyers. However, now that tablets are more in the public conscious, WebOS can still carve out a niche, if not power, the device everyone will want to buy.
The question now is whether HP wants to make that happen. They already accidentally discovered the magic $199 price point. But HP is focusing on more business from the corporate sector. Will they position this as an alternative to the Microsoft tablets or come out with a product line just to leverage it against an expanding Microsoft? It could simply position this as a lower-end / supporting version of business tablets to complement HP's own Windows tablets.
For other tablet makers, this opens up opportunities to create their own semi-closed eco-systems. This is because WebOS is also designed for web-based apps so it cannot truly be closed. Or create vertical products within specific markets. What Linux has done in the embedded market is allow companies to build embedded systems without the significant investment in embedded OS cost. Now WebOS can build on that by allowing the same companies to build products using the WebOS graphical OS. Cheap educational toys and school tablets come to mind. Display systems for microwave ovens and smart fridges may also be in the picture.
Whomever chooses to use WebOS will be at an advantage. WebOS is still in beta and not ready for primetime. For now, it's just a matter of guts and the gutsy guy that takes on porting WebOS to their platform now will be ready to launch their products when WebOS goes final. 

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