Who will buy HP’s WebOS? A look at the main contenders


Human beings love a good wager. We’ll put money on just about anything that looks like it has half a chance of pulling through. Ever the optimists, we lovingly put our hard earned cash on the horses, the dogs, the football, and even teen singing contests. So why not indulge in a little tech speculation? Especially with the field so ripe with potential winners and losers, movers and shakers.

For the betting man (or woman) among you, let’s consider the prospects for WebOS, and HP’s hardware division, suddenly up for grabs in a market still reeling from Google’s $12.5 billion purchase of Motorola Mobility.

As Android partners absorbed the shock of Google’s announcement last week, and analysts waxed lyrical about the upcoming slowdown of Android’s momentum in the market, HP decided to spin off its hardware division, dump its month old tablet and is considering what to do with WebOS and the remnants of its smartphone aspirations. Could the move have come at a better time? Hardly.

But who will buy HP’s orphaned wares? Who could possibly profit from WebOS? Let’s take a look and indulge in some not-for-profit punditry.

Samsung is the first company that comes to mind. The Korean firm is an Android partner, but has also experimented with its own Bada OS, seeing some success in the mid-low range European smartphone space. With arch rival Motorola now cuddling up to Google, the firm will be looking to diversify as much as possible, and set itself apart from its rivals in the space. WP7 is one way of doing that, but doesn’t give the firm something HTC hasn’t already tapped into. Bada, as we’ve mentioned, was developed for the mid to low end, but WebOS is polished, tried and tested. It has great consumer reviews and talented developers attached to it. Sure, adding yet another OS to its arsenal may not seem like a top priority move for Samsung, but at the right price – and boy does HP know how to run a fire sale – it may be an option worth considering.

If Samsung isn’t interested, fellow Korean firm LG might be. Unlike Samsung, LG has not developed its own OS and has put itself at Android’s mercy. LG has also struggled to make much of an impact on the smartphone scene, so a little differentiation from the rest of the pack might come in handy.

Another name being thrown around the tech analyst playground is Amazon. The monster retailer has taken the world by storm with its Kindle E-Reader, but would a move into tablets be a lucrative upgrade? The firm certainly has the cash to spend, and there’s all sorts of interesting ways WebOS could be integrated with Amazon’s cloud services, so don’t count this rumor out of the running just yet.

The next big firm on the list of potential woo-ers for HP’s WebOS, if not the handset division itself, is Qualcomm. As analyst Jack Gold points out, WebOS currently only runs on Qualcomm chips and the firm is currently engaged in a major battle to differentiate its ARM-based Snapdragon chips sets from other ARM-based suppliers like Nvida’s Tegra, TI’s OMAP, and even Intel’s non-ARM Atom chips. Qualcomm has also been in the OS business before, having brewed up Brew, which saw some limited success on feature phones, but is running out of steam.

The chip giant is also a master of bundling, says Gold. “What better way to differentiate (and sell lots of chips) than by offering OEMs a complete package – CPU, GPU, Wireless and of course, the OS to make them all play well together,” he says. By doing so, Qualcomm would be building out an entire ecosystem, putting the firm on par with the likes of Apple.

It’s also worth remembering that there’s a burgeoning developing world out there, where cost is key, and where iPads and high spec Android tablets have yet to make much impact, leaving the space wide open for players like Qualcomm to flood the market with its products at a lower cost than it would in the U.S. and Europe.

“It could invigorate the many vendors serving the emerging markets. And it could sell a lot of Qualcomm chipsets. And with Qualcomm’s design tools, app delivery capabilities and extensive relationships in the mobile vendor and carrier market, it could be a viable option,” says Gold.

Positioning WebOS as a mid-range player could indeed be a game changer, Gold goes on to say. It also wouldn’t detract from Qualcomm’s commitment to continue supporting Android, Windows Mobile, Windows 8 or anything else. It simply adds another platform to get more distribution for its chips.

“Of course, there is always the chance that a another dark horse like Nvidia could come in and take on WebOS, but it is less probable they have the resources to make the total package work, and it would endanger their status as the platform of choice for Android Honeycomb,” says Gold.

When RCR asked Gold what he thought of the possibility of Intel buying into WebOS and HP’s handsets, in order to finally find a way in to the market the firm has been trying to crack for years, he seemed skeptical. First off, he explained, WebOS has not yet been ported to Intel’s Atom chips, it has so far only been optimized for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon.

Secondly, says Gold, Intel doesn’t have the “ins” with all the vendors that Qualcomm has to make this work and would have to take a considerable amount of time to port and release to market. “and time is of the essence here,” he told us.

That doesn’t completely rule Intel out of the running – the firm certainly has the money to spend – but it is the one with the lowest odds. Intel has also invested significant time and effort on MeeGo, and with WebOS sporting almost zero smartphone share, it would hardly add much to Intel’s prowess.

Last but not least, don’t discount the patent scavengers. Palm had a number of patents when it was snapped up by HP, and those would likely be up for grabs in any WebOS sell-off, so an Apple or Google bid may still be on the cards, although that may also be a long shot.

Whichever option you chose to put your money on, it certainly is a thrilling game to watch.

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sylvie barak