Remember that whole "we welcome today's news, which demonstrates Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) deep commitment to defending Android, its partners, and the ecosystem" line that Samsung President J.K. Shin gave us in the wake of Big G's purchase of Motorola Mobility (NYSE: MMI ) ? I didn't buy it then, and I definitely don't buy it now.
I can appreciate the need for PR niceties, but it still infuriates me when companies don't just cut to the chase and say what's really on their minds. The inevitable tension that's been building in response to Google's acquisition of its favorite partner is palpable. Samsung knows that it needs to taper its reliance on Android. The company has publicly stated its need to strengthen its software position, which had led to some short-lived speculation that it would consider taking webOS off Hewlett-Packard's (NYSE: HPQ ) hands.
Don't be evil; be like Google
The South Korean Goliath has been shifting its efforts toward development of its own proprietary mobile operating system, Bada. The Wall Street Journal reports that Sammy is "planning to make Bada software an open source platform next year." Sounds like part of Samsung's desire to distance itself from Google involves becoming more like Google -- by allowing external developers and third-party OEMs to tinker with the OS. The "person familiar with the situation" also clarified that Samsung is not thinking about buying any software companies.
According to market researcher Gartner's figures, Bada's worldwide market share in the second quarter sat at a lowly 1.9% compared with Android's commanding 43.4% and Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) 18.2%. Although 1.9% doesn't sound like a lot -- because it isn't -- the figure more than doubled from the previous year’s 0.9% and topped Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) 1.6% slice.
Sounds like Symbian
Doesn't Samsung remember when Nokia (NYSE: NOK ) went down this path only to return with its tail between its legs? The WSJ report quotes a Strategy Analytics analyst, Neil Mawston, as saying: "Hardware vendor-controlled platforms that move from closed to open do not have a great track record in the past. Nokia failed dismally with Symbian, for example."
Symbian has been deemed a failed experiment. The Finnish smartphone maker has officially dropped the aged OS and is now betting big on Windows Phone 7. While Symbian still boasted a 22.1% share in the second quarter, it's fallen far from its 40.9% share in the prior year.
It's true that Symbian had its own glaring weaknesses that contributed to its decline, but its open nature did little in its favor. Developers despised working with the platform, it preceded the era of capacitive touchscreens, and its Ovi Store was a total disaster.
If Samsung has any dreams of playing catch-up and making a dent against iOS and Android, it needs to focus more on the United States. Bada has no meaningful presence in the crucial U.S. market. When was the last time a friend came up to you proclaiming, "Dude! Check out my sweet new Bada phone!" or asked, "Are you planning on upgrading to a Bada phone when your contract is up?"
The company needs to at least be able to capture some mindshare if it hopes to make any progress with market share.
Bada has some potential in the mostly uncharted smart TV arena, though. One perk that Google probably took note of yet that avoided major headlines was Motorola's presence in the set-top-box market. Google's first attempt at storming the TV market was a flop. There's little doubt that Google CEO Larry Page is already reformulating a strategy that leverages Motorola's position.
Samsung is one of the world's largest makers of flat-screen TVs and has already expressed interest in running a unified OS on both smartphones and TVs. Coincidence? Not at all.
Pick your battles
Open or not, I think Samsung is picking the wrong battle with Bada. Most of Sammy's recent successes have been attributable to its focus on solid hardware specs while leaving the software to the likes of Google and Microsoft. Although the need to diversify away from Android is obvious, it could accomplish that through strategic partnerships with Microsoft, like the Windows 8 tablet it just built.
Erecting an entire OS platform and growing a developer base from the ground up would certainly have its benefits, but it's far too late in the game. Of all the current major platforms, Apple is the only one that's been able to succeed with hardware and software integration, but it also had a first-mover advantage. Google will undoubtedly try an integrated approach with Motorola, but at this point Android is already mature and established. Samsung will take its shot, but in the end I predict that it will need to accept being relegated to what it knows best: hardware.