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Will HTC Buy WebOS?

The Taiwanese manufacturer mulls buying HP’s discarded operating system.
September 14, 2011

Ever since HP more or less discarded its webOS operating system–setting off a TouchPad fire sale frenzy, among other things–rival manufacturers have been rumored to consider scooping up the OS. This week, one such rumor was confirmed when the Taiwanese manufacturer HTC, widely noted for its Android smart phones, announced that it was considering buying an operating system (though was “in no rush,” according to the Economic Observer of China, via Focus Taiwan). The OS in question is widely assumed to be webOS.

“We have given it thought and we have discussed it internally, but we will not do it on impulse,” HTC chairwoman Cher Wang reportedly said, before offering a slew of reasons why the company shouldn’t necessarily scoop up webOS. “We can use any OS we want. We are able to make things different from our rivals on the second or third layer of a platform,” Wang said. “Our strength lies in understanding an OS, but that does not mean we have to produce an OS.”

Would such a move make sense? It’s easy to understand why HTC might be feeling a little bit inadequate right now. It was passed over in favor of Motorola Mobility when Google decided to purchase a hardware maker for itself. If it’s software-producing partner has now become something of a competitor, doesn’t it make sense for HTC to arm itself, so to speak, by getting into the software business itself? If Google should decide to wall its garden even further, imitating Apple and focusing on making one Droid to Rule Them All–where would that leave HTC?

Then again, we don’t have any indication yet that Google intends to greatly favor Motorola’s hardware over its other partners. In fact, Google has been actively defending HTC and other partners in patent infringement battles against Apple. Last week, HTC sued Apple in court–using nine patents it obtained from Google. Four of those patents originated with Motorola. “That’s a bit of a game-changer,” said Will Stofega, a technology analyst, told Bloomberg. “Google was interested in protecting its licensees with Android. It shows they need to support their customers in order to make sure the customers stick with them.” It’s a moment where Google’s loyalty to its non-acquired partners was put to the test, and it passed with flying colors.

On top of its amicable relationship with Google, HTC also makes phones for Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform–another friend who could suddenly turn competitor were HTC to acquire webOS.

When all is said and done, it probably doesn’t make sense for HTC to acquire webOS. Were it ever to get to the point where it really needs an OS for itself–a point where it was no longer on speaking terms with Google and Windows–the situation would probably be too dire for HTC to compete. And this late in the smartphone wars, it seems unlikely that HTC could succeed where HP failed, in transforming webOS devices into anything more than a bit player. HTC should probably continue doing what it does best–making strong hardware that licenses the operating systems it already knows so well.

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