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Third-Party Devices, Easy App Development May Lift webOS

Execs say HP will let others develop devices based on the platform, which may help raise the profile of webOS for businesses.

HP CEO Léo Apotheker made it clear that his won't be the only company to offer smartphones, tablets and other devices based on the webOS platform it acquired when it purchased Palm last year. Speaking at All Things D's D9 conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California Wednesday, Apotheker suggested that HP would be open to working with both partners and smartphone competitors to ensure the platform gets as broad an audience as possible.

"It's not correct to believe that it should only be on HP devices," Apotheker says. "There are all kinds of other people who want to make whatever kind of hardware they make and would like to connect them to the Internet."

At almost the same time as his boss was opening the door to the possibility of webOS on other devices, Jon Rubinstein, HP's webOS chief, was making sure he kept that door just a bit ajar, suggesting that HP will partner with "one or two special companies" but that "HP is not interested in being in the general licensing business."

This isn't the first time HP has made a major webOS pitch to third parties. At its Americas Partner Conference in March, HP spent a lot of time promoting its upcoming Touchpad device and the webOS platform in general to its massive community of SMB-focused value-added resellers.

In taking this approach, HP seems to be walking a line somewhere between Apple and its dictatorial approach to what devices run its iOS platform and what applications run on that platform, and Google's more laissez-faire approach to licensing the OS and welcoming third-party apps, which has its own problems in platform fragmentation and malicious apps showing up on the Android Market.

If HP can balance its need for control with a wider choice of aesthetic options for business users, it has a real chance to make webOS a much stronger contender in the mobile platforms market. While it's a powerful and slick operating system, it's not exactly exploding right now--Gartner's most recent market share numbers don't even break out webOS's market presence; it's instead lumped in with "others" for a total of less than 4 percent of the market.

Along with getting webOS on HP computers alongside Windows, getting more devices with different looks onto the market could go a long way to developing webOS as a platform. Software-wise, webOS has unique features that make it potentially compelling to business users, including its "Synergy" system that brings contact, calendar, and other personal information together from disparate systems, and a notification system that makes iOS's blue pop-up boxes look positively prehistoric.

But it's the webOS software stack, built on top of Web standards like HTML, CSS and Javascript, that should make webOS most compelling to small businesses. Building out a custom webOS app is still a non-trivial activity, but should be much more accessible to small businesses than building out a similar application on rival platforms like iOS in terms of skills or cost required because of that grounding in Web standards.

If HP can get the operating system running on its smartphones, tablets and PCs, and some hot third-party devices, and can raise the awareness level of the ease of custom app development on webOS, it may be able to make the platform a compelling offering for the small business user.

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