Will webOS go down as Nokia's 'might-have-been?'

Phil GoldsteinI've been slowly digesting the news (and a lot of tapas) from last week's Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain. 

Among the few devices that truly impressed me in Spain were Hewlett-Packard's new webOS devices, which were unveiled at a separate event ahead of the show. They're fast, slick and intuitive and the platform is now running on the kind of hardware I wish Palm had debuted when it first introduced webOS in 2009. It took me all of a few minutes to master the basic functions of HP's forthcoming TouchPad--and afterward a nagging feeling crept through my mind: "Nokia, this could have been yours."

One of the dominant themes of last week's MWC was Nokia's (NYSE:NOK) deal with Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) to use Windows Phone 7 as its primary smartphone platform. It was buzzed about everywhere at the show--that's what happens when you announce a major deal just ahead of the start of an international trade show--and yet, I was left thoroughly dispirited by Nokia's choice.

In an interview at the show with myself and a few other technology journalists, Nokia CTO Rich Green said Nokia would stick to Microsoft's tight hardware specifications to get its Windows Phone devices to market quickly. He also said Nokia would do little, initially, to change the platform.

"Although we have the right to modify the UI, why would we?" he said. "I think it's critically important to ensure that end customers have a consistent experience for the device, and that developers have a consistent experience in developing for the device so that we don't fracture either the user experience or the developer experience, the application experience. So both for speed and efficiency reasons, and growing the ecosystem, we'll be focusing on ensuring as much as reasonable stays in common rather than creating what's at variance."

Translation: At least initially, Nokia is just going to be another Windows Phone licensee, despite the integration of Nokia's Ovi services with Microsoft.

What if Nokia had purchased Palm when Palm was for sale last year? I believe Palm's webOS could have been an innovative platform for Nokia.

Nokia's problems have not been on the hardware side of the business--instead, Nokia's Symbian was losing momentum to Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android and Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS because those software and application ecosystems are more appealing.  Nokia has much of the same resources that HP has--global reach and scale, a massive distribution network and a solid brand.

Could Nokia have bought Palm when it had the chance? "It's a reasonable bet that they at least kicked the tires on it," said CCS Insight analyst John Jackson. "It would have been imprudent not to."

Jackson said that HP's latest webOS products are particularly impressive, and can compete with those from established players.

"What HP has now produced reinforces the idea that it doesn't have to be Android or an established platform," he said. "In many senses it (webOS) is a software stack that is more prescient than anything else out there. ... It anticipates a future where the mobile platforms are going to be far more HTML-centric. It may go down in history as being ahead of its time. It's futuristic in a way all of the competing platforms aren't."

I'm not saying HP's revitalized webOS products are going to be a runaway success--far from it. There are a host of challenges ahead, not least of which is securing strong support from a handful of Tier 1 carriers on a non-exclusive basis. However, while Nokia was busy pouring billions of dollars into Symbian and MeeGo development (Nokia spent $3.9 billion on research and development in 2010--nearly three times the average of some of its strongest peers), Palm crafted a top-notch OS that could have been Nokia's, if Nokia had wanted it.

Now Nokia has to hope its gamble on Windows Phone pays off. I'm betting on webOS as a dark horse. --Phil