WebOS, first from Palm and then from Hewlett Packard, came and went so fast most mobile software developers never even got a chance to play with it. Now HP has declared WebOS to be Open Source, placing the project (it’s really not a product anymore) under CEO Meg Whitman to show they haven’t totally given up on the mobile OS. But what is WebOS, really, in this new incarnation? Its potential is enormous — far greater than most people realize — but I simply don’t see HP and Whitman as being able to execute on the plan, if there really is one.

WebOS and its Enyo application framework are clever and elegant and have one important advantage over any competitive mobile environment, which is that they leverage a huge base of web programming talent. WebOS, while based on Linux, uses strictly HTML, CSS, and Javascript for application development — tools familiar to almost any web developer. So the learning curve for WebOS is very steep (steeper is better because you are learning faster) as opposed to, say, Android, which is also Linux-based but requires developers to learn an almost entirely new model (reusing only the language and core libs from Java).

So WebOS was simpler to start with and now it is free. Heck of a deal!  But what can people actually do with it.  In the HP world, plenty. Remember the plan was to put WebOS on everything HP made from printers to mainframes, sometimes co-resident with other operating systems like Windows.  HP could use WebOS as a sort of glue to more elegantly link system parts together creating a strategic advantage in the process.

Neither IOS nor Android are good at all things. Android plays well with its own services but doesn’t work nearly as well with Google’s other server-side offerings like AppEngine. IOS doesn’t like anything non-Apple.

WebOS could be for HP the glue that holds its systems together making it suddenly more advantageous to go all-HP bottom-to-top, especially for enterprise customers, where the money is. Imagine WebOS alternatives for, say, cloud data synchronization like iCloud and SkyDrive, two terrifically complex and closed products.  And by allowing third-party glue through Open Source, HP would be tacitly admitting that it can’t imagine or create every necessary component, so make one of your own, please.

HP would sell hardware, they’d sell high-margin associated services, but the heavy development lifting would be shared with a large cadre of Open Source developers. At least that’s what I imagine the plan to be: HP hasn’t been clear.

Open Source WebOS, then, is really an anti-IBM and Oracle (Sun) strategy more than anything else. So that’s what Leo Apotheker had in mind! But it can only work if HP makes WebOS truly open to the point of publishing APIs they might otherwise have kept hidden.

Whitman may talk a good game, but I don’t think her troops are ready to be that bold.  I think they’ll flinch, perhaps without even telling her, and make WebOS a little less open than it should be. And by doing so they’ll let WebOS fail.