Samsung's bada the dark horse of the smartphone OS wars?

Mike Dano

Samsung has been quietly and diligently working to make its homegrown bada smartphone operating system a legitimate competitor to Android, iOS and Windows Phone. Already the company offers many of the same cutting-edge features--widgets, Near Field Communications technology, HTML5 support and multitasking--as the top smartphone platforms. And Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ) COO Lowell McAdam recently mentioned bada--along with Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone and Research In Motion's (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry platform--as a potential third-place offering behind iOS and Android.

But is bada just a Samsung experiment? A hedge against Samsung's support of Android? The numbers show bada is more than just a side show, at least in Europe. According to figures for the first quarter from Canalys, bada global shipments totaled 3.5 million--way above the 2 million for Windows Phone but behind Android's 35 million.

"Samsung's own operating system development, combined with the branding and investment in its Wave smartphones at mid-tier prices, has led to good uptake in developed markets, such as France, the U.K. and Germany," said Canalys analyst Pete Cunningham.

"Bada is differently positioned to Android, which Samsung has so far reserved mainly for top-end products," noted TownHall Investment Research in a recent note. The firm said bada handsets cost an average of around $66 in Western Europe, compared with $230 for iOS devices or $100 for Android phones.

And apps? Bada has those, too. In March the company said it had recorded 100 million bada app downloads and counted 13,000 apps in its bada store.

Will Samsung bring bada to the United States? The company did not answer questions on the topic, but based on McAdam's familiarity with bada, I wouldn't be surprised if Samsung is shopping the platform to U.S. carriers as part of a long-term plan to ply Americans with bada.

The more important question, though, is whether bada will be successful. With bada, Samsung is taking an approach similar to Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Hewlett-Packard in that it is keeping bada in-house and using it to generate sales of hardware--but unlike Apple and HP, Samsung is not afraid to venture out into the wider world, building smartphones running both Android and Windows Phone.

Thus, Samsung's bada could actually enjoy a strategic leg up on Apple's iOS and HP's webOS due to Samsung's vast mobile experience. The company, the world's second largest handset maker, could gain valuable experience in selling Windows Phone and Android smartphones that it could leverage into a U.S. push for bada.

But such a strategy would put Samsung into an unfamiliar position: Leader. In mobile, Samsung has made a successful business being a fast follower--the company followed the Motorola (NYSE:MMI) Razr into the super-slim clamshell craze, and it continues to follow Apple and others into the world of slab-style touchscreen smartphones. Motorola's ex-CEO Ed Zander once famously referred to Samsung as "Samesung."

Is bada Samsung's chance to stand out in front? Or is it Samsung's hedge against the rising tide of Android? Samsung has the power and the leverage to make bada into whatever it wishes, but unfortunately the company's wishes remain unclear. --Mike