WebOS fans left hoping that bungling HP might leave webOS in kinder hands

Given its haphazard and half-hearted approach to trying to market webOS mobile devices, many fans of the platform wish that Hewlett-Packard Comp. (HPQ) had never acquired Palm.  But with the last of the pro-webOS executives departing from HP's ranks [1][2] and the staff of the mobile OS unit slashed by layoffs, there is a bit of good news for the fans -- HP is reportedly at last prepared to sell webOS.

The news was first reported by Reuters.  According to the international news agency, HP has retained Bank of America (BAC) subsidiary Merrill Lynch to help it decide whether to sell the unit.  HP has reportedly dumped its former advising firm in the matter -- Perella Weinberg Partners L.P. -- a firm which was recruited by recently fired former HP CEO Léo Apotheker.

Potential buyers are thought to include HTC Corp. (TPE:2498),, Inc. (AMZN), International Business Machines, Inc. (IBM), Oracle Corp. (ORCL), Intel Corp. (INTC), and Research in Motion, Ltd. (TSE:RIM).  Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd.'s (KS:005930) has already resoundingly rejected the possibility of a purchase.

Given the staff reductions and the frozen status of platform development, any webOS revival would require a lot of effort.  Some of the companies evaluating a webOS purchase are reportedly less interested in launching future webOS devices, and more interested in acquiring the former Palm unit for its trove of mobile intellectual property.

If HP does sell webOS, Reuters says it will likely be at a fire sale discount from the $1.2B USD that the company paid.  States a source, "This won't be the most robust auction in the world."

The potential sale price, according to the source would be in the "hundreds of millions of dollars" range.

In a recent interview new HP CEO Meg Whitman left the door open that HP could also hang on to the mobile operating system and use it in a new tablet.  She commented, "The question now before us is what do we do with webOS software and do we come back to market with webOS devices.  It obviously will not be the same device but it will be version 2.0"

HP may be tempted by the surge in popularity that the company's short-lived webOS tablet saw.  While the device was a sales disappointment, when sold at its full price that matched that of Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) iPad, it saw buyers aplenty when HP killed production and opted to offer the devices at a drastic clearance.  Suddenly webOS tablets were a hot item, despite the relative lack of apps for the platform -- the platform's biggest weakness (particularly a lack of free ad-supported apps).

HP TouchPad
HP's TouchPad saw a surge of popularity and interest after the device's fire sale.

Of the potential buyers, Reuters points out that Amazon could be a leading candidate, given the fact that former Palm CEO and current innovation chief at HP's parent unit of Palm, Jon Rubinstein, is a board member.  Amazon has thus far committed to Android as its solution for tablets.

Fans should be warned not to get their hopes up too much, though.  Last month a sale was rumored, but it failed to materialize.

A very recent report from The Verge says that HP is holding an all hands meeting tonight to announce the final decision regarding the fate of webOS.

Sources: Reuters, The Verge

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