Last summer, Hewlett-Packard [HP] acquired Palm, a maker of smart phones, and also the developer of a smart phone operating system called WebOS. (The WebOS system, which is based on the Linux OS, was developed as the successor to the PalmOS system originally used on Palm’s phones.) At the time, HP said that they regarded the WebOS as a key strategic asset. Last month, HP announced new smart phones that would run the WebOS, as well as the TouchPad, a tablet computer that will run a new version of WebOS when it is released this summer.
Now, according to an article at Ars Technica (and widely reported elsewhere), HP has announced that it will include WebOS on all of its new PCs, beginning next year.
HP CEO Leo Apotheker has said that next year, all PCs sold by Hewlett-Packard will include WebOS, the mobile operating system acquired by HP when it bought Palm last year. The operating system will ship alongside, not instead of, Microsoft’s Windows.
It is not clear exactly how this will be done. It is possible that the machines might be set up to dual-boot either Windows or WebOS, but there are other possibilities, especially since the initial objective seems focused, at least to some extent, on making WebOS applications available on “standard” PCs. The WebOS might be set up as a light-weight, “pre-boot” environment, or it might run in a virtual machine under a Windows host system.
However it is done, I think this is an interesting announcement for a couple of reasons. Historically, Microsoft has used its market muscle to establish exclusive relationships with hardware makers: typically, to get preferred pricing for Windows, the manufacturer had to agree to ship PCs exclusively with Windows installed. (Anyone who has ever tried to buy a PC with no OS installed knows that it isn’t easy.) HP is the biggest PC vendor in the world, so this announcement means that a lot of customers will be getting PCs with an operating system that isn’t Windows. Moreover, it is a system largely built on open-source software; in addition to the Linux OS kernel, it uses the WebKit HTML rendering engine, Pulse Audio, Upstart, and the GStreamer media framework. Underneath its user interface layer, designed specifically for touch-screen devices, it looks very much like a light-weight Linux distribution.
The wide provision of WebOS also, potentially, gives HP customers a system that has an interface designed for tablet computers and other touch-screen devices. I have written a couple of times before about Microsoft’s difficulty in coming up with a successful tablet computing product, despite their efforts to push the idea for several years. It can hardly be good news that HP, one of their major customers, has decided that, at the very least, it needs to hedge its bets on an OS for tablets.