The people who manage Samsung’s mobile division aren’t feeling the love these days. First, they are being sued across the world by Apple for alleged intellectual property violations. Apple has also claimed a few victories in holding off sale of Samsung tablets in Australia, and blocking the sale of Samsung Android smartphones in parts of Europe.
Then there’s Google. Samsung has clearly staked a lot of their mobile device success on the Android OS platform. So what does Google do? They buy up a rival handset maker, Motorola Mobility. So even though, the theory goes, Google will treat all Android OS licensees fairly, and those licensees have even signed on to press releases praising the move, it’s clear that’s not how it’s going to work in the real world. How could it be otherwise? So, Samsung may already be looking for alternatives.
Just last week, there was a report that Samsung was considering expansion of their Bada platform, previously used mostly for embedded software in feature phones, to replace Android in their smartphone lineup. Indeed three Bada-based smartphones have already been announced.
Of course, wanting to develop an operating system and succeeding at the task are two gaps the may never be closed. I’m sure Samsung’s management is aware of that, for otherwise they would not have licensed the Android OS and Windows Phone 7.
Now there’s a published report that Samsung might be going after the failed WebOS. Now understand that the originator of WebOS, Palm, could not survive as a separate company. Although their first WebOS smartphones were highly praised, they were still way behind the iOS in features and performance, and failed to catch on in the marketplace. Despite the inability to demonstrate the success of Palm’s newest products, HP opted to spend $1.2 billion to acquire than anyway. Evidently they had hopes that they could pump enough cash into the division to make it successful, not to mention offer HP an OS alternative for smartphones and, in fact, for PCs.
In all fairness, buying a company that comes on hard times, or is failing to realize their full potential, doesn’t mean the acquisition is a bad idea. Remember that NeXT wasn’t doing so well when Apple came a calling in 1996. NeXT had ditched their hardware, and had decided to focus strictly on software, but there’s no indication they were succeeding so well there either.
But Apple saw the potential — or acted out of sheer desperation — so they decided to spend $427 million, a sum that, in turn, brought NeXT’s talented development staff and Steve Jobs to Apple. Indeed, it took several years to actually build a salable and relatively useful OS even then. Attempts to just graft a Mac OS user interface onto the NeXT OS were stillborn when key Mac developers, such as Adobe and Microsoft, balked at having to totally redesign their apps to become compatible.
There’s no point, though, in recalling the history of Carbon, a method to ease the transition of older Mac OS apps to Mac OS X, Cocoa, and all the other fineries of Mac OS X. The fact of the matter is that everything worked out just fine in the end. Indeed, Apple’s Unix-based OS became the basis for the iOS, the very system that has turned the entire mobile device industry on its head, as more and more companies decided to attempt to imitate rather than innovate.
If Samsung were to buy WebOS, it would also be a move of desperation, or at least one to increase their options should the Android OS become a less viable option after the Google purchase of Motorola Mobility closes next year. But WebOS is a two-time loser. If HP, the largest PC manufacturer, couldn’t make a go of it, what guarantee is there that Samsung will fare any better, should they deceive to take that leap of faith?
This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see viable iOS alternatives, or better tablets. Yes, Android OS succeeds today on volume, and smartphone makers are attracted to it because they don’t have to worry about rolling their own, or paying license fees to Microsoft (although some have to do that anyway even on Android gear). But if Android’s presence is reduced because disgruntled handset makers go elsewhere in the wake of Google’s decision to acquire an in-house manufacturer, the OS’s market share will quickly drop too, as more and more mobile handsets are upgraded. There’s no indication that Bada can become a better OS, nor any indication that WebOS would magically advance should Samsung or some other company choose to take it over.
In the end, leaving Apple with clear and almost unchallenged dominance of the most profitable portions of the smartphone market, not to mention serious dominance of the tablet market, can have unfortunate consequences. It may even slow innovation. Sure, Apple updates products on a regular basis, but the extent of those upgrades must surely be influenced by market forces. Yes, Apple is known to break the mold, but if there are few companies nipping at their heels, those changes are not going to be as frequent.
But I wonder if the tech industry, hoping to be as good as last year’s iPhone or iPad, will ever figure out a way to become better.
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