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webOS has long been held in high regard by true mobile fanatics. It’s beautifully crafted, intuitive and has enough drill-down functionality to sate even the most hardcore tech fans. The only shame has been its failure to ever take off in a meaningful way, with the original Palm Pre never catching on and the Palm Pixi hardly setting the world alight either.

PALM PRE LARGE

That’s why confirmation that webOS is set to be licensed to third parties is such great news. HP’s CEO, Leo Apotheker, divulged his companies plans to Bloomberg yesterday, saying: “I can share with you that a number of companies have expressed interest. We are continuing our conversations."

Naturally, Apotheker refused to say just who HP is talking to. But insiders claim that Samsung is one of the interested parties.

The idea of webOS spreading its wings in this way is certainly fascinating. It’s clear that the operating system has lacked traction in the smartphone space because of its failure to sell large volumes.

That, in turn, has meant apps have been limited, meaning users would rather use Android or iOS where the add-on options are pretty much limitless.

While it’s unlikely that HP would be able to match Google and Apple, licensing its software would allow it to gain a foothold. Thanks to already being well-established, major manufacturers could easily push the OS as hard as rivals like Windows Phone 7, meaning the former Palm OS could quickly gain a significant minority stake in the smartphone sector.

So, why are mobile makers so keen? Well, here’s where it gets a touch worrying. One of the insiders who revealed Samsung and HP were in talks claimed to Bloomberg that Sammy was game largely because it’s concerned that Google is about to put its foot down and stymy major customisations to Android. Word is that HP would have no such problem with Samsung (and others) tweaking webOS to its heart’s content.

HP webOS logo

On the one hand that means the Koreans can release stacks of webOS phones that have a specific Samsung look and feel, something Google (and Microsoft with Windows Phone) are just not keen on. On the other hand, it means end-users wind up with phones loaded with custom skins and bloatware that simply serve to annoy and clutter. webOS’s beauty lies in its simplicity.

Changing this too much might give manufacturers a better grip on devices and make them feel that they, as the hardware types, are in charge. But it will also create phones that just don’t have the pure experience that so many smartphone users evidently crave. For HP, this is a difficult balance.

Maybe it will allow some custom apps and leave it at that. Certainly permitting changes to the look and feel of webOS would be a grave mistake that could cause greater problems for it in the long term. webOS needs a bigger audience, but is being open to major customisations really the way to go?

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