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WebOS was used in several smartphones, starting with the 2009 Palm Pre, and in HP's tablet computer the TouchPad. (Associated Press )

Hewlett-Packard Co. said Friday that it's making its webOS mobile system available as open-source software that anyone can use and modify freely.

The move may be one of the technology world's most expensive efforts to give something away. HP had snagged the intuitive webOS software when it paid $1.8 billion in 2010 for flailing smartphone pioneer Palm Inc.

HP said it still plans to develop and support webOS.

Initially released on the Palm Pre smartphone in 2009, webOS ultimately ran on several smartphones. In July, HP also used it on its tablet computer, the TouchPad.

The mobile devices never caught on with consumers, many of whom were more enticed by Apple Inc.'s iPhone and iPad and smartphones running Google Inc.'s Android software. Developers also weren't that interested in creating apps for such a small audience.

HP hopes that by offering it to the open-source community, more mobile apps will be developed.

The software's future has been uncertain since August, when HP said it would stop making tablet computers and smartphones — part of a blundered announcement by then-CEO Leo Apotheker, who also said then that HP was looking into putting its PC business up for sale.

In September, Apotheker was fired and replaced by former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. Whitman said in late October that HP wouldn't be selling off its personal computer business after all, but said then that the future of webOS was still unclear.

Todd Bradley, the head of HP's PC unit, said at the time that it was "fair to say Apple got a great jump-start in the tablet space" and HP was trying to figure out its own best approach. He said HP was focused on building a tablet that uses Microsoft Corp.'s upcoming Windows 8 software.

He added that consumers shouldn't be keeping an eye out for a TouchPad 2, but that the company would "clearly look at what's the right path forward for WebOS." With Friday's announcement, it appears HP believes it has found it.

HP, which is based in Palo Alto, shares rose 46 cents to $28.12 in afternoon trading Friday.