What to do with webOS?

Contact: Brenon Daly, Chris Hazelton

Investors can only hope that Hewlett-Packard doesn’t announce any ‘bold, transformative steps’ this afternoon like it did the last time it discussed its quarterly financial results. Recall that it was just mid-August when the tech giant unveiled a dramatic overhaul of its business: looking to jettison its $40bn PC division while simultaneously closing the largest acquisition in the software industry in seven years. And, to make matters worse, HP announced those moves in the same breath as it said it would fall short of its earnings projections for the third straight quarter.

Given that the makeover had the dubious distinction of being both overdue and ill-conceived, it’s probably not surprising that it was doomed. (As, it turned out, was the chief architect of those plans, Leo Apotheker.) The company had shed as much as $20bn in market value at one point because of the strategic stumbles, although it is ‘only’ down about half that amount now.

Part of the recent recovery has come from the fact that HP has stabilized, at least in some regards. There was no lingering, interminable Yahoo-style search for a replacement when Apotheker got dumped; instead, the company moved Meg Whitman into the corner office in quick order. Also, rather than see through the sale of its PC business – a divestiture that would have only brought pennies on the dollar, if it could have been done at all – HP reversed course and said it plans to remain in the PC business.

Of course, there’s still uncertainty hanging over one key aspect of its Personal Systems Group: webOS. As we see it, HP has four basic options for the business, which supplies operating systems to tablets and smartphones. It could keep webOS and put real investments behind it, even though, in the short term, those efforts might not produce much return. HP could shop webOS to a device maker, which might benefit from an integrated hardware and software product or, at the least, cut the manufacturer’s reliance on Google’s Android. Alternatively, rather than try to sell webOS as an ongoing entity, HP could slim it down to simply a portfolio of patents and put that on the block. And finally, if it can’t sell webOS in any fashion, it could just follow in the footsteps of Nokia and its Symbian OS, and punt the software into the open source community in hopes of gaining developer support with a wider range of webOS devices.