Looking back at 2011: HP kills, revives and then open sources webOS

There’s no question about it: HP made one of the biggest blunders of the year when it comes to how the company handled Palm and webOS. During the past 12 months, HP relieved one CEO who was hired less than a year earlier in October 2010, killed off its webOS hardware, hired another CEO, brought webOS back from the dead and then open sourced it. The company also announced that it would discontinue its Pre, Veer and TouchPad products, but then flip-flopped and said we can expect new webOS devices in the future. It’s a confusing company to say the least, so let’s start all the way at the beginning and trace the curious path HP took with webOS this year.

The story begins in February when HP finally announced the TouchPad and Pre 3, the first new devices to be unveiled following the company’s acquisition of Palm. Former CEO Léo Apotheker made a promise that the new devices would ship “within weeks” and not months, a venture away from the company’s typical slow announcement-to-shelf delivery schedule. The TouchPad would finally make its debut more than four months later, however, while the Pre 3 would never see the light of day (in the United States, at least). Oh yes, how could we forget? HP also announced a tiny, barely usable smartphone called the HP Veer and while it eventually launched on AT&T, the device was soon forgotten for good reason.

The delays, poor sales and a lukewarm reception to HP’s products resulted in HP’s decision to kill off webOS hardware less than two months after the TouchPad hit the market. The company also said it was considering a spin-off of its personal systems group (PSG). There were various TouchPad fire sales where consumers could purchase the tablet for as little as $99, but the rush for dirt-cheap tablets did little to revive interest in webOS as a platform. Rumors began to float around that suggested HP was considering licensing or even selling webOS and its related assets, but ultimately it sounded like the mobile software was dead forever; then HP fired its CEO.

In September former eBay CEO Meg Whitman came out of corporate hibernation and replaced Léo Apotheker at the helm of HP. Clearly she had plans for the company that deviated from Apotheker’s: A month after she was hired, Whitman said HP was no longer planning to spin off its personal systems group and reports surfaced a day later that webOS’s future was still up in the air. So webOS wasn’t dead after all? According to Whitman, not really.

Finally, on December 9th, HP delivered its final verdict on webOS when it said it was releasing the operating system to the open source community. It seemed as though HP was, mostly, wiping its hands free of the operating system. Then, later that same afternoon Whitman came back and said that HP wasn’t exactly finished making webOS devices. Whitman confirmed that consumers could expect future webOS powered devices from HP, including even the possibility of a new tablet. Confused? So are we, let’s recap:

In less than 11 months, HP went from announcing brand new webOS devices to killing off webOS hardware, replacing its CEO, putting the fate of webOS up in the air again, deciding to open-source the operating system and then coming back full circle to tell us we can expect new webOS devices in the future. If any press is good press, then HP certainly made out like a bandit this year with its baffling decision making.

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