WebOS still alive and kicking

HP has fobbed off WebOS to LG Electronics and the operating system might have another shot at big time, provided the Korean company uses it to re-define their televisions into something else entirely.

LG Electronics has acquired HP’s WebOS for an undisclosed amount. When last it changed hands WebOS was part of Palm which was purchased for $US1.2 billion in 2010.

Palm has thus been effectively divided into several smaller pieces distributed as follows:

HP will own:

  • Support of existing Palm users
  • Palm back-end assets including source code, infrastructure and talent
  • WebOS patents

LG will own:

  • Stewardship of the Open WebOS and Enyo open-source projects where the source code resides
  • Associated talent
  • WebOS websites
  • License for IP related to WebOS

LG announced that it plans to offer an “intuitive user experience an Internet services across a range of consumer electronics devices.” In an interview, the CTO of LG said that given the current situation with Android, LG does not plan on making smartphones running WebOS but will use it in televisions and other devices such as cars, signage and appliances where there are no embedded OS’s. “We’d like to secure a software platform across all devices.”

Most commentary regarding the deal focused on the use of the platform for TVs but management seems to consider all devices, perhaps even phones, at some future date, to be WebOS targets.

The TV, however, seems to be low hanging fruit today. The TV as an app platform will be the new ecosystem war and no platform today has a lock on the developers or users. The way this rivalry will shape up will not mirror other device classes for the same reason that current device classes are platform silos.

PCs, music players, tablets and phones all have different super-majority platform leaders. The association of a platform with a device class depends first on the distribution model, which favors a specific business model which favors a specific vendor which favors a specific platform. As each device is distributed differently, a different platform takes precedence.

Consider that the PC has historically been purchased by IT departments which led to a monoculture of Windows which led to a persistent leadership for Microsoft.

The music player created dominance around iTunes mostly because the distribution model for music labels was baked-in. With network effects, the iPod quickly gained and perpetually retained market share leadership.

The smartphone business initially favored Symbian and BlackBerry because they had the market access through operators. After the touch UI became dominant (and incumbents failed to respond in a timely manner), Apple and Google took leadership as soon as they accepted the operator distribution model. Android in particular is especially resonant with operators and has been developed with their requirements in mind.

The tablet business is more like the PC business but without enterprise requirements or patterns of purchase. This has meant that app/content ecosystems and retail distribution were the key gating factors. The story is still unfolding but so far Microsoft has not found a foothold while iOS and Android and Amazon have.

That leads to the question of how will smart TVs be sold and which business model (or go-to-market strategy) will succeed. Steve Jobs pointed out the difficulty in trying to deliver innovation into a value chain dominated by cable companies which can effectively block it. A TV which is an application execution device rather than a content terminal will require a re-definition of the category. That will require a re-positioining of this product. Few companies are able to do that. [See also my post Tele Vision from mid-2011].

Which brings us back to the question of WebOS. As long as LG sells TVs as content terminals they might not obtain much value from WebOS. If, on the other hand, LG were to use WebOS to re-define their televisions to be something else entirely, namely software execution devices, sold differently and hired to do a different job than a TV, then WebOS becomes not only necessary but potentially a source of great prosperity. 

Horace Dediu is founder and managing director of Asymco, a Helsinki-based app developer/industry analysis advisory firm. You can find his blog here.