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Meg Whitman and Marc Andreessen on webOS: 'We will use webOS in new hardware... in tablets'

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Meg Whitman and Marc Andreessen talk about the future of webOS as an open source project

HP webOS_640
HP webOS_640

We've just had a chance to sit down with HP's CEO Meg Whitman and board member Marc Andreessen to discuss the future of webOS given today's announcement. Both Meg and Marc were eager to talk about webOS not as a dead end, but an active platform which the company would continue to put resources and cash against. Most surprising of all? The company plans to create new webOS hardware... including tablets. We've transcribed the full conversation — so read on below.

Will HP be creating any new webOS hardware?

Meg: The answer to that is yes but what I can't tell you is whether that will be in 2012 or not. But we will use webOS in new hardware, but it's just going to take us a little longer to reorganize the team in a quite different direction than we've been taking it in the past.

Are we talking printers? Or tablets and phones?

Meg: In the near term what I would imagine — and this could change, in full disclosure — is I would think tablets, I do not believe we will be in the smartphone business again.

But tablets are a real possibility?

Meg: Yes.

So how will this new webOS team be structured? Will Marc run a webOS Foundation like Mozilla? Will there be a division? Will it be part time for HP engineers?

Meg: So we will keep the core group of employees together - those who want to sign up for this new vision. Admittedly, this is a different vision than webOS had for themselves. That was more akin to a closed-loop system, more like Apple in many ways, and now we're going to an open system. So we will keep the core group together, there will be leadership as there has been, and HP will continue to invest in this. The exact organizational structure we do not know yet — we've looked at Mozilla, Hadoop, Red Hat, and we want to think through that. Many of those models have been successful, we may come up with an alternative model on how we want to organize this. But there will be a dedicated team of resources to this, with the first backer being HP.

But that will be a webOS-dedicated team, a webOS team.

Meg: Correct.

Are there going to be pieces of webOS or IP that you hold onto, that will be HP-only?

Marc: In general, the intent is to open source webOS — so the idea is to open source webOS in its entirety...

Meg: Including Enyo.

Marc: Including Enyo. By the way, there are some current components of webOS — in its current form — that are not open sourceable, so there's some work that has to happen to swap those out and swap in some open source alternatives. So there's some work involved to get webOS into open source, but that's the first order of business.

But the goal is not to keep some pieces of webOS for yourselves. You want the whole thing open source?

Meg: Yes, absolutely.

So what happened with selling? There was a lot of speculation that you would sell it off. Were there no attractive offers, or was this just a different direction you wanted to take — to invest in it, to not sell?

Meg: We looked at a whole bunch of opportunities, the team here — right after the mid-August announcement — said 'what were the alternatives?' Wind down? Sell the portfolio? Run it like we did before, but better? And as we looked at all the alternatives, this seemed to be the one that made the most sense for the industry, for the community, for the developer community. As you go through these structures, you look at the pros and cons of the alternatives, and this was one that was affordable for HP to invest in in the long haul, but also had a great opportunity to fill a market need. And listen, it's a great asset, and who wants it to go away?

Are there going to be more layoffs in the webOS division? Or will that stop here?

Meg: You know, I don't really know the answer to that. We want to keep this team together. We have to build a business plan, we've got to build a 3 or 4 year product roadmap. And exactly who we need on the team and what positions remains to be seen. But what I told employees this morning is that we want them to be part of this. But we this also has the characteristics of a startup — a big startup. It has 600 people, 750,000 devices out there in the marketplace, it has a big company behind it. But it's a startup. What we have to do is figure out exactly where we're going to invest and how many people we need to do that.

So what is the metric for success or failure with webOS at this point? How do you know 'hey we're winning, it's working,' or if you need to reevaluate?

Meg: Well first I want to set expectations about time frame. This is going to take some time. If you look back at the history of Mozilla or Red Hat — these things did not become giant platforms over night. This in my view is a 4 or 5 year timeframe, and I want to make sure we really communicate that. And then I think the measures of success — and I'm not going to give you numbers here — but the measures of success are going to be: how many developers are writing for this platform? Have there been other hardware manufacturers who have signed on and built devices, whether they be tablets or devices of the future or smartphones? And ultimately, the ability of developers to make money.

But you think this is 4 or 5 years before you can evaluate if it's doing what you want it to do?

Meg: There will be milestones along the way, but one thing I know about technology is that if you believe in something, you have to have a longer term horizon than next week, next quarter, or next year. When we looked at alternatives, we said 'what will be affordable to HP to invest, and get this thing going,' and we'll monitor along the way. There's a bit of a test and iterate here — it's not just something you say 'if it's not perfect in a year, we're out of here.'