As Samsung ponders webOS, questions of market support remain

As Samsung ponders webOS, questions of market support remain

Summary: Samsung may be considering purchasing HP's webOS mobile operating system. But in a highly competitive market, it's going to need aggression -- perhaps in the enterprise -- to win.


DigiTimes reports this morning that Korean tech giant Samsung is considering purchasing Hewlett-Packard's (and Palm's) recently assassinated mobile operating system webOS.

(For those who have been on vacation during August, HP recently said it would spin off its PC business and entirely abandon webOS as it looks to enterprise software and services, à la Oracle, SAP and IBM. The move drew an uproar from the tech world, who said the OS was too good to kill off; critics responded that if it was so good, why didn't anyone buy it?)

While Samsung has publicly said it wasn't interested in HP's PC business, it hasn't said a word about webOS.

A few of my ZDNet colleagues have already weighed in. The occasionally irreverent (but often accurate) Jason Perlow wrote almost two weeks ago that Samsung or HTC were the likely suitors, spurned by Google's decision to acquire Motorola Mobility just days before. And mobile gadgeteer Matthew Miller suggested that with all the Android lawsuits in the air, Samsung may diversify its OS support.

What I'm wondering: just how many operating systems can the market support?

We wondered this many years ago when Google's Android operating system first hit the scene: Apple's iPhone was attractive, RIM's BlackBerry was popular, Microsoft's Windows Mobile was stumbling and Palm's webOS was forthcoming. And in those early days, Nokia was still barely in the picture with Symbian. (It's since thrown in the towel and bedded up with Microsoft.)

A lot's changed since then. Apple has preserved its overall lead; Android has grown at an incredible pace; RIM has stumbled, Microsoft was reborn and HP acquired Palm.

Most major hardware makers -- Samsung, Dell, Motorola, HTC, etc. -- initially chose Google but several have since diversified into Windows Phone 7. And now that webOS is on the chopping block, with Android under considerable legal fire, we're seeing reports that it might just be cheaper to drop Android and save webOS.

I can't help but wonder, however, how many operating systems the smartphone market can support. How many proprietary systems can gain enough support to justify their existence? Or does it not really matter, if they all sufficiently support the Internet and its standards? (Cue third-party developer outrage here.)

The reality is that developers' time is limited. It's a zero-sum game -- no small firm is going to support all devices out of the gate, and as developers turn their attention to operating systems with the most user support, they delay releases to lesser-used operating systems -- in effect slowly strangling them.

Call it unintended consolidation. And it's not clear that an exclusive "home run" app on another operating system is enough to woo users over to a new platform, as John Gruber writes. That early-adoption window may have already closed, although there remain plenty of feature phone users out there to woo.

My point in all this is that webOS doesn't just need Samsung, it needs a shockingly aggressive plan to upend the market and send another mobile OS packing. The problem is that the weakest operating system in the current bunch is RIM's BlackBerry OS; Samsung would have to take an exceedingly consumer-friendly webOS and somehow give it an enterprise edge beyond basic VPN support.

Neither HP nor Palm could manage to execute that plan, though both promised as much.

And it would have to be an ecosystem approach. The tablet game is even more complicated for Samsung; while it was the first major non-iPad entrant with the Galaxy Tab its success has since been eclipsed by Motorola's Xoom tablet and BlackBerry's PlayBook tablet. (HP's TouchPad, of course, failed miserably until it sold for $99. On the other hand, all those bargain-basement TouchPads out in the wild mean webOS just got a bump in support. Which makes me wonder if clearing that inventory didn't also conveniently inflate the value of webOS for HP for a future sale.)

Can Samsung take the necessary risk to make webOS happen after giving Google so much support across the globe? It's a daunting challenge, and one that make take some time to achieve. (And might result in the swift death of its Bada low-end operating system.)

Time is a luxury Samsung, and webOS, can't afford. But a conservative, short-term strategy that puts profitability above market adoption isn't, either. My advice to a webOS-ified Samsung: punt on profits, undercut the market -- especially in the enterprise -- and get this operating system into users' hands before their preferences, and department budgets, are ossified.

Topics: Operating Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Mobile OS, Samsung

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • RE: As Samsung ponders webOS, questions of market support remain

    Is Samsung really set up to deal with enterprise customers? Do they even have a direct sales force calling on IT shops? How are they organized to provide support?
    Robert Hahn
    • Precisely.

      @Robert Hahn I don't believe they do. Making it all the more difficult.
    • RE: As Samsung ponders webOS, questions of market support remain

      @Robert Hahn
      Does Samsung really need another OS? They are doing quite well from Android and Bada phone are also selling quite well (apparently, Bada phones outsold WP7 phones last year). As well, Samsung make WP7 phones. So, to own two OSes (Bada and webOS) as well as make phones for another two OSes (Android and WP7), would seem to be an unnecessary stretch. I want webOS to survive, but I have my doubts that it will be with Samsung.
  • webOS needs a consortium

    I think what would make the most sense is for two or three handset manufacturers to create a joint venture for webOS. These manufacturers would gain because they would have more control over the feature set than they do with Windows mobile or Android, and the OS would gain due to improved market share. I can't see how else a third o/s could compete with MSoft and Android.
  • RE: As Samsung ponders webOS, questions of market support remain

    There is an easy fix for who ever buys webOS or license... all you have to do is pay to have apps ported from other many cases it can be done in a few hours to a few days....if the app count comes up so will further interest into one of the easiest OS around!
  • RE: As Samsung ponders webOS, questions of market support remain

    The only company that would benefit from Samsung purchasing and using WebOS would be Apple. You would then have 3 different O/S's on the tablets/phones - iOS would be fine as they are top dog, but the other two would just splinter and wither. Staying with Android allows for a larger ecosystem and the possibility of survival.
  • It makes sense...

    ...especially if you take the "forget immediate profitability" route. HP, under leo the moron, was focused only on the current quarter, much like GM in the 80's-90's, and we all know how that movie ended. Those who think that the touchpad only fared well at $99 aren't seeing reality. When the price came down to $399, and Staples had a $100 coupon on top of that, the internet was on fire with people trying to find one. Staples went through their inventory quite well at that price!<br><br>Either way, webOS is fabulous and I hope it will (finally) end up in the hands of a company that can actually produce quality hardware AND market the hell out of it, be that Samsung, HTC, or whomever.
  • Samsung just needs WebOs for the portfolio

    Samsung could just use the WebOs portfolio to go through all patents and find ones similar or overlapping with Apple iOS. They can use these to help defend their Android position in Europe, US, and Australia. Same thing if Goggle decided to purchase WebOs.
  • Samsung can't even keep their phones updated with Android

    If they can't even update their phones with the newest versions of Android, how could anyone believe that they have the programming finesse to keep an OS alive and competitive? The mobile market moves too fast for Samsung to ever make this happen and be profitable.