Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein is considering licensing his WebOS platform to other hardware makers, he tells the FT. This after his turnaround effort has stalled and Palm’s best hope appears to be an acquisition — if it can find a buyer.
But it’s hard to see how licensing will be a success for Rubinstein and Palm.
The biggest problem is that Google Android is running away as the non-Apple mobile platform leader, and we don’t know any reasons why a company would prefer to pay Palm to rent WebOS instead of just using Android, which is free and open-source.
Unlike WebOS, Android is beginning to receive significant consumer and developer traction. It has far more apps, developers, and hardware partners than Palm’s platform. And if a hardware company’s goal is to use a platform with mainstream adoption and a lot of apps, it seems that Android would be the more logical choice than WebOS.
Bigger picture, the mobile and apps industries are becoming a waltz of elephants, and there won’t be more than a few platform winners. It’s clear that Palm has a very slim chance of catching up to Apple and Google. So why would a company make a big bet on the third- (or fourth-) best player when it can bet on the second-best?
Some exceptions could be if a company were to want to use WebOS for a wholly different device, like an e-reader or Web tablet, where Android’s existing smartphone apps aren’t helpful. (We’d love to hear other examples.) But even then, it seems more productive to morph Android for those purposes, as several companies are already doing, because the Android-trained developer community will still be bigger.
And, to be sure, perhaps there are some technical things — power consumption, 3D graphics, etc. — that WebOS does better that might make a difference and give Palm’s platform an advantage. Let us know if you can think of any that might upset our argument.
Another licensing problem for Palm is that it would require a TON of licensed device sales to make enough money to matter to Palm, which is burning cash. Microsoft’s Windows Mobile licensing system — which had been a decent success in terms of adoption before Microsoft let its OS decay — never generated any meaningful revenue for Microsoft. (Palm, a former Windows Mobile licensee, surely knows this.)
Palm has tried to licence its software in the past, if you recall, which caused all sorts of trouble. This led to Palm’s product and platform divisions working (unproductively) in isolation from each other, and it later led to a Palm spin-off — Handspring, founded by Palm’s original team — building better products with PalmOS than Palm did itself.
Palm later acquired Handspring, and one of its executives, Ed Colligan, was CEO of Palm until Rubinstein took over less than a year ago. (“Piloting Palm,” the history of Palm’s first life, co-written by David Pogue, is a great read, if you’re interested in this sort of stuff.)
But that doesn’t seem like the kind of history that is going to repeat itself.
So while licensing WebOS might make a sexy story to tell potential acquirers or Wall Street, it’s not going to save Palm.
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