Palm's webOS is down, but not out

While HP's announcement that it was to buy UK software giant Autonomy and look at spinning off its personal computer business was telegraphed, last night's announcement did come with a major surprise: the death of the company's webOS-powered hardware.

Acquired by HP when it bought PDA pioneer Palm back in 2002, webOS is the Java-based operating system which is the spiritual successor to the fondly remembered PalmOS. Although it never reached the dizzy heights of success enjoyed by the likes of Apple's iOS or Google's Android, it had its fans - and when HP announced a range of new webOS-powered hardware, including a shiny new tablet, they were delighted.

Sadly, sales of the new HP 'Palm' smartphones were lacklustre, but that's nothing compared to the fate of the TouchPad: while it's been generally known that, despite discounts, sales have been slow, figures leaked to AllThingsD by a source with access to HP's internal reports make the claim that US retail giant Best Buy has so far managed to sell a mere 25,000 of its 270,000-strong inventory of the tablets.

That's an embarrassing figure, and one that will cost the company big: during its earnings call last night, HP admitted that it would be taking a $0.05 charge per share to cover unsold TouchPad inventory, which equates to around $100 million. Thus far, it's not clear what will happen to the devices: whether they'll be subsidised by HP and sold at rock-bottom prices to people who don't care that the platform is without a future, or returned to HP, crushed, and buried under a cement slab in the New Mexico desert.

Since its announcement, however, HP has made it clear that while its smartphones and tablets are for the chop, webOS is likely to live on thanks to the company's renewed focus on becoming an enterprise software powerhouse. Comments made by the company's vice president of webOS Stephen DeWitt during an internal meeting - where he is reported by ThisIsMyNext to have claimed the company wasn't going to "walk away" from the platform - suggested that the software may be re-purposed as an enterprise platform for embedded systems in the automotive, construction, and military markets.

That's likely to come as a bitter disappointment for the many fans of webOS, however - and doubly so for those who, trusting HP, shelled out on the TouchPad at launch only to find it killed off after a mere two months on sale.

It's also a remarkably different approach to others in the industry such as Research in Motion, which has done exactly the opposite in taking an enterprise-grade embedded software platform in QNX and retooling it to drive its future smartphones and tablet devices.

With former Palm chief executive Jon Rubenstein having been moved out of the webOS division and into the Personal Systems Group - the arm HP is looking to spin off at the earliest possible opportunity - early last month, it's safe to say that Palm and its legacy has been finally laid to rest.