When HP announced that it will be releasing webOS under an open source license, many people cheered for the survival of webOS, saying that the move would revitalize webOS and re-introduce it as a major player in the mobile world. Will it really do that, though?
“Open source” is a vague phrase. Android and Linux are two open source projects, but both are still different. Android uses the Apache License, whereas Linux is released under the GNU General Public License (thankfully shortened to the GNU GPL). HP never stated which open source license it will choose to release webOS under, and until we know, it is uncertain how the move will play out.
The difference between the Apache License and GNU GPL is that the latter is considered a copyleft license. This means that any modifications made to the source code must also be made free. Take for example Samsung TouchWiz, Samsung’s custom framework for Android used in popular phones such as the Galaxy S II. If Android had been released under a copyleft license such as the GNU GPL, Samsung would be required to release the full source code to TouchWiz as well.
And that leads toward one scenario in which this move might not help webOS in the slightest. If HP chooses a copyleft license (in which case it would probably pick the GNU GPL), there is a chance device manufacturers might avoid the operating system completely. Why? With a copyleft license, like I stated before, manufacturers would have to release the source code of all the changes they made to the operating system they distribute with the device. If a company like Samsung has trade secrets mixed in with the operating system, there is no doubt it would want those specific modifications to be under lock and key. Indeed, copyleft licenses are a surefire way to stifle innovation in the operating system, and without innovation, webOS would get left behind by both developers and consumers alike.
That brings up one issue with non-copyleft licensing, though. If a device manufacturer or carrier is not forced to release the source to its modifications, there is a good chance it would get away with slipping potential privacy-infringing code into devices (a la Carrier IQ). A copyleft license would bring those modifications out in the open, so it would be less likely that such software would find its way to your device.
Back on the topic of innovation, it might not be entirely stifled by copyleft licensing (of course, this benefit goes for non-copyleft licensing as well; it’s simply hypothetical for copyleft). On the chance that a manufacturer does develop a device that runs webOS and HP still releases webOS under the GNU GPL, the community can still play a major role in moving the operating system forward. Take for example CyanogenMod, a project that started out as a small hack to stock Android and grew into a full-fledged Android distribution in its own right, having close to a million installations according to CMStats. Quite a few features and fixes that debuted in CyanogenMod eventually made their way to AOSP (a patch of my own got there, as well). The open source nature of Android has fostered a powerful community upon which it is supported and improved. If HP makes the right decisions in the near future, I do not doubt we will see a great community driving webOS as well.
Based on history, releasing webOS under a non-copyleft license might just be the best way to go for HP. Android did just that, and it now dominates the mobile market because it is easy for manufacturers to take Android, modify it, and then decide if they want those modifications to be made public or not. Manufacturers and carriers like choice just as much as consumers do. I doubt Android would have gained the traction it did if it had been released under a license such as the GNU GPL. Manufacturers that wanted to add their own improvements and differentiate themselves from the competition would not have been able to do so without releasing those improvements and unique qualities over to those that they were competing against.
Like I said before, no matter what type of open source license HP chooses to release webOS under, the community will still be there to pick up any slack. Unfortunately, rarely can a community alone get an OS onto a production device and get it recognized by a major share of the market. The difference between Android and webOS, however, is something I have yet to touch on. Android is developed and pushed by Google, which is primarily a software company. On the other hand, webOS was developed by Palm, a hardware company, and acquired by HP, also a hardware company. If need be, HP could no doubt release webOS under a copyleft license and proceed to back the operating system itself by producing consumer devices capable of running it. In fact, HP’s CEO Meg Whitman announced that we should see webOS-powered tablets return in 2013. It might be a bit harder to gain market traction, but it is still a completely viable option for HP. In addition, the community might support webOS even more if this route was taken, as a fully open source platform is a true gem in the mobile world. Unfortunately, even Android is not completely open source; it still requires proprietary drivers to work properly on most devices (the Nexus line being the occasional exception to that rule, along with a few others). HP has a serious chance to steal some of Android’s open source thunder.
It is still going to be a long road for HP and webOS. Being a fan of open source myself, I am excited that the company is taking this approach and I’m going to be watching the webOS Developer blog for the foreseeable future. The idea of another major mobile operating system entering the race (because frankly, webOS never really got there during its first attempts), and an open source one at that, is a great one. If we are lucky, this will bring about even more innovation in the mobile scene. If webOS still fails, we could still see some of its best features make their way to Android, who knows? The future is clear and open now, friends.