Samsung Wants A Bigger Presence?

There have been a couple of items about Samsung in the last week or so that seem to indications Samsung is looking to increase its influence in the mobile technology and perhaps the personal computing market. First is a piece on Business Insider that claims that Samsung was looking at HP’s PC business, although other sources claim Samsung wasn’t. This morning, a new piece on AppleInsider says that Samsung may be interested in buying WebOS from HP, possibly as a counter to both Apple and the recent Google/Motorola deal. Samsung is apparently interested in also increasing it’s commitment to its own system, Bada. Of course, there have been others that believe that Samsung could also add more support for Windows Phone, also in the wake of the Google/Motorola deal.

I can see Samsung’s motivation for picking up WebOS: Their Bada sales have been minuscule, to say the least, and WebOS might bring them more brand recognition. Using either could allow them to be a fully-integrated mobile device maker, like Apple is today, where they provide both the hardware and software, and the software is exclusive to them. However, is Samsung willing to bet on a single system? Right now, they offer Android, Windows Phone and Bada devices. WebOS would make it 4. Would Samsung seriously be willing to abandon Android and Windows, and perhaps even Bada, and commit themselves to a single operating system? Could Samsung make it work with WebOS or Bada alone?

Possibly, but unlikely without some other work, beyond the handsets and the operating system. I keep beating this dead horse, but I won’t let up: it isn’t the technology alone that is moving so many Androids and iPhones. It’s the ecosystem. Bada and WebOS suffer from a very small catalog of apps, and limited content. This same problem is what is hurting Blackberry and to some extent Windows Phone. It doesn’t matter if WebOS or Bada is “better” in some subjective or even objective way. It’s the same issue that keeps Linux in tiny numbers on notebooks and desktops, and one that hampers MacOS a bit, and keeps Windows the king on PCs: it isn’t how good or bad the underlying technology is, it is what you can do with it, and big app catalogs and large media/content libraries win. Say it with me: the average consumer doesn’t buy tech specs.

Even if Samsung did pick up WebOS, they are at least 18 months, possibly 2 years, from having a WebOS unless they really rush things. If they cut some corners, they could probably get a WebOS device out in a year, but there is a risk that the device and the software integration isn’t as sturdy and reliable as consumers would want. But again, if there isn’t a decent selection of apps and content, it really won’t matter. Sure, they’ll sell some handsets, because some people will give it a shot. But the share of the market and number of units will likely stay down in the single-digits, simply because their devices won’t have a rich ecosystem when compared to iOS or Android.

But then, what should Samsung do? Clearly, they aren’t going to just retire from the field, leaving Google, Apple, RIM and others unchallenged, and nor should they. Samsung is a large company with a significant technology presence, although primarily as a “gadget builder”, making devices that build on other people’s research. Samsung could, with time and money, start to build a compelling ecosystem for either Bada or WebOS. What Samsung needs to do, in my mind, is choose one, and commit sufficient resources to at least give it a chance. Spreading their bets across Bada, WebOS, Windows Phone and Android will continue to make them a “gadget maker. That would keep them as more of a follower than a leader, and beholden to companies that build the bits that make their handsets useful for 2 platforms, and have 2 underfunded platforms in the stable.

One thing that could try for WebOS is to make it so that Android apps can run on it, and look good on the platform. I’m not talking about some kind of “emulator”, like the supposed Android support that QNX/PlayBook is supposed to have, which is more a virtual machine with a subset of the Android API. I’m talking about running Android apps so that they look and feel like native apps, with full access to the hardware, and complete access to a recent API. This would at least get them a ready-made library of apps, but still allow them to have their own underlying system. In essence, use the Android app binary format as the standard representation for apps in WebOS and/or Bada. That, combined with some time and effort to build up media content, could go a long way in making WebOS on Samsung hardware a viable platform.

However, it is done, Samsung has to be aware of two key factors. First, remember that its the ecosystem that’s important, and without it, it won’t matter how good the operating system and hardware are. Second, consumers don’t buy tech specs, they buy usefulness, entertainment and productivity, which goes back to the first point. Otherwise, WebOS will continue its membership with Bada, Windows Phone and Symbian in the “interesting, but no one cares” club for mobile computing.