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Web OS, RIP

Well, this is shaping up to be the biggest week of tech news in memory. First it was Google's shock acquisition of Motorola, which has the potential to transform the dynamics of the rapidly-growing Android smartphone platform. And now, one of Android's competitors, HP's WebOS, has effectively been killed off.

Allow us to explain. First, a little history. Before there was the iPhone or Android or even Windows Mobile, there was Palm. Famous first for their PalmPilot Personal Digital Assistants, and then for their Treo smartphones, Palm were the pioneers of the smartphone as we know it today. After years in the doldrums thanks to some complicated business shenanigans, Palm seemed on the verge of a rebirth when in 2008 it showed off its new smartphone, the Palm Pre, running a powerful new software platform called WebOS.

But then a funny thing happened: Palm's owners, a consortium of private equity types, put it up for sale. And it was bought, not by Google, Microsoft or any of the other big tech types rumoured to be interested, but by HP - the world's biggest PC manufacturer.

In retrospect, this was always a bit baffling. HP had already owned and killed off one smartphone brand, iPaq, acquired when it bought Compaq a decade ago. It wasn't clear why HP wanted another. But one thing seemed certain: Palm was going to compete with the iPad. So, earlier this year, HP showed off new smartphones, the Pre 3 and Veer, running the latest version of what had been renamed HP WebOS. And they also showed the TouchPad, a nice-looking 9.7" tablet with WebOS on board.

It was exciting stuff: was the iPad about to have a great new competitor? But the TouchPad took ages to appear on shelves and, when it was finally released a few weeks ago, looked cheap and chunky next to the sleek iPad 2. Rumours started to swell that it wasn't selling well.

And now, HP have dropped a bombshell. They're canning the TouchPad, and the Veer, and cancelling the scheduled release of the Pre 3 later this year. WebOS, at least as part of HP's portfolio, is over. 'HP reported that it plans to announce that it will discontinue operations for webOS devices, specifically the TouchPad and webOS phones,' the company said in an oddly-worded statement. 'HP will continue to explore options to optimise the value of webOS software going forward.' That's code for 'what the hell are we going to do with this thing?'

It's not just tablets and phones that HP is getting out of - it's considering selling its whole Personal Systems Group, which effectively means its PC business. Like IBM before it, this would make HP a largely software company focused on providing high-end IT solutions to businesses.

That's not definite, though. Nor is the exact fate of WebOS - HP is likely to look for another company to take it over, but it's far from clear there's room for it in a market crowded with operating systems. All the signs are that, over a decade since the heyday of the PalmPilot, the long, winding story of Palm are finally over. Sob.

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