SAN JOSE, Calif. — The future of webOS — the innovative mobile software that Hewlett-Packard has struggled to make into a profitable product — might lie somewhere in the rooms of a Stanford Medical School radiology lab.
That's where researcher Andrew B. Holbrook is working on ways to operate a cutting-edge, million-dollar medical scanner with the help of a discontinued model Palm smartphone that he bought online for $50.
HP had bigger things in mind for webOS when it paid $1.4 billion to buy Palm two years ago: Executives talked about putting Palm's critically praised software on millions of phones, tablets and even PCs. But after a predecessor abruptly abandoned those plans, Chief Executive Meg Whitman decided in December that HP would release the code under an open-source license, which means other companies and individuals, such as Holbrook, are free to come up with their own uses.
And many experts say it's unlikely that the software will ever supplant more widely used mobile operating systems from Apple or Google, but analysts say webOS could find a new life if developers use it to create applications for specialized automotive, industrial or medical equipment, such as Holbrook's MRI scanner.
Stanford's Holbrook has used webOS to create new applications for tracking and adjusting some of the MRI's functions. He uses those apps on a modified phone, and on an HP TouchPad tablet.
"These are incredibly useful tools," Holbrook said of the webOS gadgets. He said he doesn't really want to go into the software business himself, but he's hoping that some health care company or medical device maker will eventually pick up on his work.
Whether that creates any kind of financial return for HP remains to be seen.
"It's a head-scratcher," said Al Hilwa, a software analyst for the IDC research firm. "Clearly, HP has decided they're not going to be able to make money on webOS right away. But it doesn't hurt to have a small ecosystem of developers who are still working on it out there."
HP says it isn't ready to disclose plans for a webOS business. But Sam Greenblatt, a veteran HP manager now helping lead the webOS group, hinted in an interview that he expects that other companies will find ways to use the software.
"I'm not going to tell you who's going to make hardware or who's not going to make hardware, but I don't believe webOS is going to be an orphan for long," he said.