In light of Hewlett-Packard’s announcement last Thursday that webOS development for the consumer market is to be discontinued, it now falls to independent developers to keep newly purchased fire-sale TouchPads chugging along.

The TouchPad’s sluggish initial performance was a disappointment for HP CEO Léo Apotheker. Nevertheless, his announcement last Thursday that the tablet was to be discontinued came as something of a shock to the public and was not well received. Critics of the decision complain that Apotheker hasn’t given the TouchPad enough time; user feedback has generally been positive and the webOS platform – the driver behind HP’s purchase of Palm last April for an all-in figure of $1.2 billion – has a cadre of devoted followers who were blindsided by HP’s abrupt decision to pull the TouchPad after only seven weeks on the market.

They were even more stunned when HP slashed prices 80%, bringing the price of the 16GB version down from $499 to a more manageable $99.

The losses HP is taking on each unit are considerable but ultimately don’t compare with the 20% drop in share prices HP suffered last Friday. The move to excise the TouchPad from HP’s inventory is part of a larger plan for a companywide overhaul – arguably the most significant in HP’s history – that will shift focus away from consumer computers and smartphones and onto enterprise software and equipment such as servers and printers. Shareholders balked at the news and HP’s value took a stomach-churning $16.2 billion hit as a result.

Almost as if to mock the Wall Street figures, the TouchPad continues to fly off the shelves. The lower price point has touched off an avalanche of purchases by consumers who have been unwilling or unable to pay more for other tablets. The sounds of HP employees grinding their teeth are nearly audible as delighted reviewers revel in their new purchases and glowing customer feedback floods the web. One August 24th review on Amazon.com read, “I'm quite amazed […] how great this tablet is!” Another, dated the same day, summed up a lengthy review with advice: “Anyway, if you see it for $99 buy it!!!! You won't be disappointed with what you get for such a cheap price.”

But, even at $99, is the TouchPad worth it? The shift in HP’s focus spells out the slow death of the once-promising webOS (though HP maintains that the system will continue to be used in their printers and networks). On the one hand, HP’s phasing out of their hardware department and decision to halt development on webOS means no updates, no new apps, and dwindling support from HP itself. If you decide to join the hordes of eager buyers, the pristine tablet you pull from its packaging will be brand new, yet somehow already past its prime.

But before wedging your TouchPad and its soon-to-be defunct operating system under the closest door or atop that pile of loose papers, consider this: a team of hackers and developers on Rootzwiki have started working on a project geared toward outfitting the TouchPad with the Android OS, dubbing the project ‘Touchdroid.” Down the virtual road, likeminded modding community site Hack N Mod and developer forum XDA have in turn teamed up to offer a $2000 “bounty” to the first developer who can complete an Android port in order to hurry the process along.

If these groups are successful, TouchPad users who might not otherwise have purchased a $200 or $300 tablet will have landed a high-quality specimen of hardware with a supportable operating system for a scant $99. Not a bad purchase for a fire sale.