If Samsung dumps Android for webOS, will developers follow?

editor's corner

Maybe webOS isn't dead after all. Less than two weeks after HP announced it would discontinue its webOS device business in the face of mediocre sales, promising to "continue to explore options to optimize the value of webOS software going forward"--options executives said might include selling the platform or licensing it--it looks like at least one serious suitor has already emerged. DigiTimes reported Monday that Samsung Electronics is mulling a possible webOS bid as part of a plan to go head-to-head with Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) in the battle for mobile supremacy. Samsung has publicly denied rumors it will scoop up HP's PC business, but neither Samsung nor HP have commented on the webOS rumors.

Even as recently as a month ago, the possibility of Samsung buying webOS seemed unthinkable--not only is it the world's largest Android vendor according to Canalys data issued earlier this month, but its own Bada smartphone OS also continues to gain steam, with shipments increasing 355 percent year-over-year. But everything changed in a flash when Google agreed to acquire Motorola Mobility (NYSE:MMI) for roughly $12.5 billion. Google has already promised Android will remain open, but Samsung can't possibly feel comfortable about what the Motorola deal means for other manufacturers building Android devices. Just because Android is still open doesn't mean Motorola engineers won't get first crack at any new bells and whistles.

There's also the question of whether Samsung wants to continue mortgaging its future on a mobile OS subject to so many questions over patent rights. Google CEO Larry Page has already stated the Motorola Mobility deal is a move designed to bolster its patent portfolio and "protect Android from anti-competitive threats." A scathing blog post published earlier this month by Google Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond alleged Apple, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Oracle are attempting to "strangle" Android by leveraging "bogus patents" that could drive up costs for devices running the platform. By acquiring webOS, Samsung would land its own patent portfolio and buy itself some protection against Apple: The two companies are currently entangled in 19 legal disputes in 12 courts across nine countries.

But if Samsung does stake its mobile fortunes on webOS, can it convince developers to make the same leap of faith? That's where the whole plot falls apart. To reiterate an argument I made immediately after HP scrapped webOS, the platform barely registers in the collective developer consciousness. According to Appcelerator and IDC's recent Q3 Mobile Developer Report, only 18 percent of developers expressed strong interest in writing apps for the HP TouchPad tablet and just 12 percent indicated enthusiasm for building Palm Pre/Pixi smartphone apps. Only lame ducks Symbian and MeeGo ranked lower on developers' list of priorities. And with 87 percent of developers expressing serious enthusiasm for Android app projects, behind only Apple's iPhone (90 percent) and iPad (88 percent), it seems highly unlikely even a small percentage of developers will turn away from Android just because Samsung is doing the same.

No less problematic for Samsung: The webOS developer ranks are thinning each day. At least for now, webOS is in purgatory--with no concrete plans for its future, there's no reason for developers to continue creating apps optimized for the platform. That means developers are already shifting their priorities to other operating systems. Hours after HP scrapped webOS, Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 director Brandon Watson rolled out the red carpet to webOS developers, hopping on Twitter to promise them free WP7 phones, developer tools and training. Within about 72 hours, almost 1,000 developers responded to Watson's invitation. Advocates continue to proclaim webOS is worth saving, with some even contending it's a better, more complete operating system than Android. Even if it's true, it doesn't matter until Samsung--or someone else--buys it and brings it back to life, a process that could take months. For now, webOS is in limbo--out of action, and therefore out of developers' sight and mind. --Jason