Someone needs to tell HTC to let WebOS rest in piece

A good move for HTC will only make things harder for companies going mobile without going broke

How would you feel if you were the chair of the first company to come out with a phone running a cool but very risky new operating system, backed it with all your resources, came out with some of the coolest products in the market and did all you could to make it look good, only to see its developer go marry someone creakier and far less smart just to avoid getting sued?

Especially when the remains of the market leave you dependent on your former swain as the only way to compete with the Apple Marketing Machine and its iOS juggernaut.

Would you look for some alternative that would either give you another OS to sell, or at least give you some leverage over your now-more-distant partner? Or just sit tight and count on sales of the other OS you sell, Windows Phone 7, to pick up the way IDC predicts it will?

If it makes the choice any easier, it wouldn't take long to count the Windows Phone 7 sales.

Cher Wang, chairwoman of HTC Corp. is smarter and more competitive than that.

During an interview with the mainland Chinese state-owned Economic Observer of China (story is not yet posted in English), Wang said HTC is seriously considering buying another smartphone operating system – which would give it some distinction from other major smartphone companies by giving it three different smartphone OSes to sell.

"We have given it thought and we have discussed it internally, but we will not do it on impulse," Wang said, according to the FocusTaiwan, which is owned by the Taiwanese Central News Agency.

Another life for WebOS?

The simplest thing for HTC to do would be to buy HP's WebOS, whose demise HP announced in August, but revived temporarily so it could sell a few more of the WebOS tablets from the $100 remainder shelves and entertain discussions with Samsung and others about selling it to another phone maker.

WebOS was a desperate bet from the beginning, and a losing one for HP, which seems to lack the capacity to stick with any long-term direct competition in operating systems.

In the '90s it was among the first major Unix vendors to fold or second-tier its Unix business in favor of Windows – a decision that proved to be correct, but five years too early.

The rest of the Unix market did fine for several years before watching their market share steadily dissolve as Windows metastasized into the kinds of data-center servers Unix ruled exclusively until then.

The smartphone OS market isn't nearly that clear-cut. Android makes up 46 percent of the worldwide market according to ABI research, HTC is the second-largest Android dealer with 23 percent of the Android market compared to Samsung's 24 percent.

HTC fights for its space

HTC is a lot feistier than HP, though.

It's been on a buying spree for the last year to expand its product set, capabilities and stock of patents with which to defend itself against an increasingly litigious Apple.

It has also crossed Google by unlocking its own phones to allow customers to modify their Android installs at a time when Google was trying to lock the OS down more tightly.

And, after Apple filed a patent lawsuit against Samsung for "slavishly" copying features of the iPad and iPhone in its Galaxy line of mobiles, HTC filed complaints with the U.S. International Trade Commission claiming Apple's iOS and Mac devices infringed on Android patents.

Google transferred nine of those patents to HTC last week to make the fight more effective.

The patents started as intellectual property from Palm, Inc., Motorola and Openwave Systems before Google got ahold of them earlier this year.

A third operating system would expand HTC's options and increase its distinctiveness by making it one of the few successful smartphone makers to build hardware for three operating systems, especially after having demonstrated it has the expertise to successfully add its own OS add-on features that run underneath Android to as a way to take more advantage of the hardware than a relatively generic OS would.

"We can use any OS we want," Wang said."We are able to make things different from our rivals on the second or third layer of a platform. Our strength lies in understanding an OS, but it does not mean that we have to produce an OS."

Don't bring WebOS back to haunt IT

That's great news for HTC, and probably a good decision for it as well. Having a little leverage can only help when your main market is a slugfest between two operating systems you don't own, developed by companies with hardware divisions that compete with your own.

It's bad news for IT, though. Competition is usually a good thing, but in operating systems it's better to have two or three big products in the mix just to keep things lively.

Even so, every additional operating system or piece of hardware adds to support, acquisition and repair costs, not to mention the higher cost of cross-platform app development and mesh of security holes that will inevitably poke through any effort to run four different operating systems on 100 different smartphone form factors and let them all connect to sensitive corporate apps and data.

HTC can and probably should buy WebOS. The acquisition makes a lot of sense for it.

There's no way IT should consider it as a viable option – or even a permissible one – on BYOC or corporate acquisition lists.

There's no good reason to add it, no major gaps in capability it will fill and, if the company requires diversity in purchasing just to support for the time being products that are ultimately doomed to failure, there's always Windows Phone 7.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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