As Samsung ponders webOS, questions of market support remain

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.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

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.

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