HP Might Let Other Companies Make webOS Smartphones and Tablets

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The CEO of HP has opened the possibility that it might license the webOS to other device makers. This is something that Palm — who originally developed this operating system — was opposed to.

Leo Apotheker, the head of HP, was speaking at the All Things D conference when 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.”

HP webOSJon Rubenstein, who is the head of the group that develops the webOS, gave a bit more detail at the Uplinq conference: “Our model is not to be in the licensing business. We believe there is strength in being able to build the ecosystem … but HP is willing to partner with one or two special companies.” When asked what would qualify a company as “special”, his answer was vague, saying only that they’d be able to bring value to the platform.

Here We Go Again
The webOS was created by Palm, Inc., largely by people who had previously worked at Apple. Although it was widely praised by reviewers, it was not embraced by large numbers of consumers. This caused Palm to sell itself to HP last year.

Jon Rubenstein was CEO of Palm during the time the company was developing and offering the webOS. At one point, he was asked if this operating system would be available for licensing — he said no.

The webOS was the replacement for the Palm OS, which Palm licensed to a number of companies over about a decade, including Sony, Kyocera, Garmin, and Handspring. This led to an increase in the number of Palm OS products sold, but also problems — as Palm was both the developer of the operating system and the biggest producer of devices, the other licensees frequently accused it of making the system software favor its own devices. 

Should other companies license the webOS, it’s possible Apotheker would get what he wants — more webOS-based products — but the same inter-company friction Palm had to deal with could emerge, as HP would continue making hardware as well as the system software.

Different Companies, Different Options
There are a variety of mobile operating systems on the market today, and the companies behind them follow one of two strategies: licensing or proprietary. Both strategies have lead to success, but it’s certainly not guaranteed.

Google is the developer of the Android OS and allows other companies to use it — something that has made it very popular. This is technically a licensing situation, though Google doesn’t charge fees. Another company that licenses its operating system is Microsoft who makes Windows Phone, and licenses it to handset makers. This platform has yet to take off, however. Neither Google nor Microsoft produce their own smartphones.

Apple, by contrast, develops the very popular iOS solely for its own use. The same is true of Research In Motion (RIM) and the BlackBerry OS. Until now, HP has followed the proprietary strategy, but is apparently going to switch to licensing instead.

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