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Dear HTC: Don't get into the mobile OS business

In an open letter to HTC, CNET's Roger Cheng offers some unsolicited advice on why buying or creating a mobile OS just isn't worth the trouble.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
Expertise Mobile, 5G, Big Tech, Social Media Credentials
  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
4 min read

To: HTC Chairman Cher Wang

Re: Your interest in potentially acquiring a mobile operating system

I imagine after your comments about HTC's internal discussions over potentially buying a mobile operating system, you're getting a lot of calls and advice. If I may be so bold, I'd like to offer my two cents as well.


It may be appealing to own both the hardware and software components, crafting a unique HTC experience without influence from outside parties. But given the scarcity of options out there and the long-standing dilemma of attracting developers to an unproven platform, it isn't worth the trouble.

Now, I know Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility has you concerned, despite the public comments of support you've expressed about the deal. The idea of Motorola getting all of the Android goodies before everyone else is a little unnerving.

But HTC has never been about the latest and greatest from Android, it's been about the latest and greatest from HTC. Look at your Flyer tablet. It hit the market with a version of Android that was designed for smartphones, and you used your Sense user interface to craft a decent device. It was competitive even as other Android tablets coming out came packed with newer software.

I also get that buying your own mobile platform would represent a natural extension of your need to distinguish your company in an increasingly crowded field. But Sense has already done a good job of making your phones stand out from everyone else's Android devices. One look at the classic flip-down clock, and I know it's an HTC phone. I can't say that about a Samsung Electronics or LG Electronics phone.

Scant options
So if you were to buy, what's out there? The most obvious candidate is Hewlett-Packard's WebOS. HP tried to give it a go with its own proprietary software, and look where it is now.

The soon-to-be-former PC giant has pretty much given up on the software, selling tablets and smartphones at prices usually reserved for gadgets found in the bargain bin. Yes, it's temporarily reviving WebOS for another wave of discounted TouchPad tablets, but do you really want such a tarnished brand?

It's also unclear if HP is unwilling to let go of WebOS, at least at a reasonable price. The company may just want to keep the assets for their intellectual property, which as you know better than most is pretty valuable right now.

Then there's MeeGo, a mobile platform that is only used by one smartphone created by Nokia out of a sense of obligation. If you think WebOS is little known, MeeGo barely registers a blip on anyone's radar.

There's a reason why Samsung didn't wait long to squash speculation that it would buy WebOS or MeeGo.

Limited developer support
You've always been a smaller, scrappy underdog in the handset world. And while that has suited you fine as a smartphone manufacturer using an established operating system such as the original Windows Mobile and Android, it would put you at a disadvantage if you were to try to introduce your own platform.

As successful as your phones have been, you still lack the breadth to push your own platform to developers. In the third quarter, you reported selling 12.1 million smartphones. Apple, in comparison, sold 20.3 million iPhones and 9.3 million iPads in its fiscal third quarter.

My point: Apple's scale, and not the quality of its products, draws in the developers. Android is able to lure in developers because the platform has become so ubiquitous.

If you were to start selling a smartphone with your own proprietary software, how many units do you think you can sell? Would it be enough to turn the heads of any developers? If a consumer were to choose between an HTC phone with Android versus one with a new operating system, I'm willing to bet they'll go with the Android one.

You would also be competing for the developer's time against other upstart platforms, including Microsoft's Windows Phone, which has the benefit of Nokia's huge geographic reach, and Research in Motion's QNX. Would you want to spend all that money, time, and research and development resources only to play second fiddle to larger players such as RIM? I doubt it.

If it ain't broke...
The better route would be to continue to improve upon Sense and find new ways to customize and augment Android and Windows Phone.

Some of HTC's recent acquisitions have been smart and should go a long way toward improving the offering for your smartphones. Cloud service Dashwire, mobile video provider Saffron Digital, and online music service KKBOX will up the capabilities on your phones.

Well, they can't all be winners. I'm still baffled by your acquisition of a majority stake Beats headphone business. Is Dr. Dre that cool?

Regardless, the deals have shown a willingness to augment what you already have, which is a slate of hit phones running on established platforms.

Sure, Apple has shown that taking control of every detail in a smartphone or tablet can make for some excellent products.

I hate to break it to you, but you're not Apple.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing.