Arik Hesseldahl

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HP’s Whitman: We Have to Walk Before We Can Run With webOS

I just got off the phone with Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman and one of HP’s directors, Marc Andreessen. We had a quick conversation about today’s decision to share HP’s webOS with the open source community.

And though the immediate question over whether or not HP would ultimately keep the platform or sell it to someone else is now answered, it was clear from talking with Whitman and Andreessen that there are still a lot of issues to sort out. There are questions about business models, how to work with outside developers, hardware manufacturers, and even over how many people will keep their jobs.

It’s also notable that Andreessen was on hand because of his history with open source projects. As the creator of the Netscape Web browser, Andreessen was there for that company’s much-remembered IPO, its acquisition by AOL, and the transformation of the Netscape browser into an open source project now called Mozilla, which produces the popular browser Firefox.

My first question was about what kind of contribution — both financial and otherwise — HP is prepared to make to this new open source project.

AllThingsD: Meg, do you have any thoughts on how much you’re going to contribute to this webOS effort in terms of money and people at this point?

Whitman: I won’t give you a dollar number but I will tell you that it will be a substantial software investment but it will not break the bank at HP. This is a wonderful asset, actually, but what I was telling employees this morning is you’re a start-up now. You’re a start-up with a number of people, 750,000 installed devices out there, and with your first venture capitalist, and that’s HP. And let’s go figure out how to change the world out there.

The thought that it’s now a start-up makes me want to turn to you, Marc, and ask, what do you think of that?

Andreessen: I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in a number of what I think have turned out to be very successful open sourcing projects that are a lot like this. And of course the big one that I was in the middle of was the transition from Netscape to Mozilla, which is not a perfect analogy but there are a lot of similarities and that just turned out marvelously well. And then obviously Linux has been a huge transformative force in the industry in the last 10 years, and both Linux as an open source project and Red Hat as a business have been spectacular. So we live in a world now where open source now, unlike 10 or 15 years ago, is mainstream, it’s widely accepted, it’s widely adopted, it’s trusted, enterprises are willing to bet on it, hardware companies are willing to bet on it, and chip companies build it into their plants from day one. So I think we have a real opportunity to have something really special happen.

Meg, in looking back to before your time as CEO when there was a plan to have webOS on printers and all the consumer PCs. Will there be any changes to those plans?

Whitman: I think we’ve got to walk before we run here. And let’s see what form webOS takes. In 2012 as you know we’re bringing two Windows 8 tablets to the market, we’re excited about that, we’re going to be working with them [Microsoft] constructively, but there may be an opportunity in 2013 to think of a different device, maybe come back to tablets. Let’s just see how it goes, but obviously HP would be one of the likely suspect hardware manufacturers for webOS.

So you’re not closing the door entirely to hardware down the road, just not right away?

Whitman: In all likelihood, not in 2012. The 2012 road map is already done.

One thing that comes to mind is that, based on our reporting, there may be headcount reductions in webOS at some point. Can you give us any clarity on that?

Whitman: I can’t. We have released no numbers on that and the reason is we don’t know. I’d tell you if I knew, but we don’t know. We’ve got to get a business plan, a product road map, a business model that we think will work, and decide how we’re going to engage with other hardware manufacturers, how we’re going to engage the open source community and that will determine ultimately the types and numbers of people.

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