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Licensing Deals For WebOS? New HP CEO Could Be Hedging Bets On TouchPad

What will become of WebOS, perhaps the best mobile operating system ever sold for $1.2 billion despite having amassed a market share that would be a rounding error for Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) or Google? (NSDQ: GOOG) HP (NYSE: HPQ) is getting very close to launching the next generation of products based on the technology, but it’s also thinking about ways to get more developers interested in the product that could involve bringing outsiders into its world.

During our panel on mobile platforms at PaidContent Mobile 2011, we asked for a show of hands of anybody who was using or developing for WebOS. We got polite stares in return. The brainchild of former Palm engineers, WebOS is an intriguing mobile operating system that does two things very well–notifications and multitasking–that other mobile operating systems struggle to implement elegantly. But it’s barely on the radar of the mobile industry at the moment, among other reasons because it took nearly a year from the time HP bought Palm for $1.2 billion in 2010 to release a next-generation device based on WebOS, the HP Veer.

In separate tech conferences outside Los Angeles, in San Diego, and halfway around the world in Taipei, we received assurances from HP executives Wednesday (and one soon-to-be-chastised partner) that more WebOS products are nigh. Jon Rubinstein, the former CEO of Palm now running HP’s mobile business, told attendees at Qualcomm’s Uplinq conference that the company would announce launch details for the TouchPad, first unveiled in February, “in short order,” according to MarketWatch. A SanDisk (NSDQ: SNDK) booth at Computex in Taipei had a working TouchPad available for visitors to try out, perhaps not necessarily with HP’s approval.

And for the main event, new CEO Leo Apotheker told attendees at D9 that HP was open to licensing the operating system to other companies, which was a bit surprising given that one of the original reasons HP wanted to buy Palm was to control its own mobile operating system after years of relying on Microsoft’s increasingly outdated mobile software prior to the launch of Windows Phone 7.

Apotheker also repeated statements Rubinstein and HP consumer leader Todd Bradley made in February about installing a WebOS layer on the Windows PCs it ships, which sounds like the short-term plan to boost interest in WebOS among developers. But after Apotheker was brought on board following the tumultuous departure of Mark Hurd (who signed off on the Palm deal), HP appears to have changed its mind about its plans for WebOS.

Is this a good idea? It’s basically the Apple versus Google question: Would you rather own and control all the technologies under your roof, or would you be willing to give up some control in order to see an idea spread widely? For a while, HP was making it sound like it wanted to differentiate itself from the rest of the hardware world by having its own mobile OS. But the lack of interest in WebOS as a development platform or a consumer product may be forcing the company to consider raising the tide to lift its boats.

Even if HP’s Palm acquisition doesn’t work out, $1.2 billion is not a ton of money to a company that made $126 billion in revenue during its last fiscal year. But this is a make-or-break summer for HP, WebOS, and its mobile strategy in general. It may all come down to the TouchPad launch and demand for the new WebOS devices: if those devices take off, HP may keep its mobile OS private. Should those launches prove to be duds, it won’t have much choice but to consider life as a mobile OS company.