Despite the billowing success of the iPhone, recent studies show that Android is the number one mobile platform in the world. For companies that depend on it, the Google-powered Android operating system for mobile phones and tablets is free, and given Google's increasingly large war chest of intellectual property, it also serves a shield against stray bullets in the software patent wars. For some reason, the top officers in the Android army are showing signs of defecting. HTC chair Cher Wang told a Chinese newspaper that the Taiwanese company is thinking about buying an operating system, one that would presumably replace the Android software that currently powers its devices. Meanwhile, Samsung is releasing a new line of non-Android phones, and Microsoft is moving in with their long-awaited "Mango" phones. Is this the beginning of the end of the Android empire?
HTC's announcement comes at an odd time. Just last week, the company sued Apple using a bunch of patents they had recently acquired from Google. Some experts believed that the patent hand-off was a tacit show of support from Google for their third-party partners, one that would comfort Android partners in the face of Apple's aggressive patent tactics. With its growing market share and slick technology, HTC is fast becoming a serious competitor for Apple and prime target for patent litigation, but while they in no hurry to leave the Android ecosystem, they're starting to talk about it. "We have given it thought and we have discussed it internally, but we will not do it on impulse," Wang said on Monday. "We can use any OS we want."
The most obvious explanation for HTC's change of heart is Google's pending acquisition of Motorola Mobility. Samsung has already been moving away from Android by developing its proprietary Bada operating system, and HTC is starting to look like they're lagging behind their competitors. Furthermore, the prospect of Google building their own mobile hardware in addition the software that powers it is threatening to Android partners, especially HTC, and getting into the OS business might be their best defense. Mobiledia explains:
HTC may escape a potential Android squeeze that may result from the Google-Motorola deal if it buys WebOS. A proprietary OS may allow the Taiwanese company to more closely copy Apple's successful business model of customizing software for specific hardware.
Google, too, is likely aiming for this integration with its Motorola purchase. If HTC beats the search giant at its own game with its own OS, it may enhance the company's standing in the market.
As much as everyone hates to admit it, Apple will continue to be the company to beat for a while, and it's not unreasonable to thing that Google will put its own interests before those of its partners. Roger Cheng at CNET thinks that HTC's plans to buy an OS are in vain. "Sure, Apple has shown that taking control of every detail in a smartphone or tablet can make for some excellent products," Cheng says. "I hate to break it to you, but you're not Apple."
But it's worth considering the idea that HTC (and less so Samsung) might want to be some other kind of mobile technology company, one that doesn't fit into the Apple-Google dichotomy. Based on the remarks of the acting president of HTC America, the mobile war of the future will play out on multiple fronts, and that's just what HTC wants. Martin Fichter said at the Mobile Future Forward conference in Seattle on Monday:
Apple is innovating. Samsung is innovating. We are innovating. Everybody is innovating. And everybody is doing different things for the end consumers. I brought my daughter back to college--she's down in Portland at Reed--and I talked to a few of the kids on her floor. And none of them has an iPhone because they told me: 'My dad has an iPhone.' … We here are using iPhones, but our kids don't find them that cool anymore.
It might be wishful thinking, but Fichter has a point. One day, iPhones could be passé, and if everybody else is innovating, the company left dangling from Google's coat-tails will be left in the dust.