If there was one company that could rival Apple, Google and Microsoft, it's Amazon. It has devices; it has a content marketplace. But what Amazon doesn't have is its own platform. webOS could be the final piece in its puzzle.
webOS has largely been a dud of an OS, but that's not because of the product itself. It's because the people who control it have no idea what to do with it. HP says it wants to hold on to webOS, but who knows how truthful that is. Samsung raised a few eyebrows in the past few weeks when rumors claimed the Korean tech giant might license, or flat out acquire, webOS. Those rumors quickly fizzled when Samsung declared it would never use webOS in any capacity. But rumors like that suggest HP is at least open to talking to other companies about unloading the OS.
Meanwhile, Amazon is ready to start offering products of its own. No, it needs to start offering products of its own. While Apple, Google and Microsoft all first made their marks by creating products, Amazon made its own by selling products. Yes, Amazon has flirted the idea: It has the Kindle reader and the Kindle store. It has the MP3 storage locker and the video streaming service. It is chasing down Hulu. But Amazon is shoehorning these software services onto other people's platforms. Now, it's about to release a tablet. Amazon needs an OS of its own where it can seamlessly integrate all of these offerings into a single, coherent interface. webOS is a fully-realized OS (or damn close, at the very least) that can quickly give that to Amazon.
For those doubting the importance of platforms and/or the willingness to evolve, look at Facebook. It started as a social networking site in the most literal definition of the term. Then it launched the f8 platform which attracted developers to take advantage of the millions and millions of people using Facebook, which in turn made Facebook an even bigger company offering games and web apps and video rentals for $$$. Realizing that people visit Facebook for the sole purpose of playing Farmville, Facebook entered into a long-term deal with Farmville developer Zynga that will funnel a bunch of exclusive games into the social media site. For a company like Google, Android spotlights all the latest and greatest mobile technologies that the search giant has to offer. And Apple, who dominates the mobile apps world, takes a share of every app sold on iOS. Amazon has the user base to do what these companies do, but without a platform of its own, it's tough for Amazon to reach this level. Amazon turned itself into a book/eBook giant by acquiring startups years ago. It could turn itself into a consumer product giant by following that same strategy.
So why acquire a fading mobile OS? Well Amazon could create its own OS, but you've seen the previous UI work up until now. It's ugly. Trying to watch on Amazon Instant Video, a service that was crammed into the UI of an online store, is an exercise in pulling teeth. Amazon lacks the chops to develop a mobile OS on its own. The company could base its strategy around a customized version of Android as rumors suggest it will for the tablet, but a) blah, b) the tablet is rumored to be running a version of Android older than the tablet-friendly Honeycomb or even Gingerbread, and c) any customization comes with the consequence of not being able to offer the latest Android updates.
And this would be the beauty of acquring webOS. Amazon would absorb a product that's already battle-tested and made for the future. It can build the OS around its own services and technologies. It can push updates whenever it wants. It would have control. So suppose Amazon aggressively pursues webOS, possibly pays more than it should for the OS knowing it can make recoup the investment in hardware and app sales, and acquire the webOS team with it. It now has the product it needs, and a team of engineers who are properly qualified to improve on it.
Amazon obviously has the money to turn webOS into a winner. And if Amazon is willing to offer upwards of $2 Billion for Hulu, why can't it make make a concerted effort for webOS? It's not like it's scared of showing up late to the proverbial party, or taking a risk on a product/service similar to one it already offer. This year, Amazon spent $200 million on LoveFilm, a Netflix-type service that operates in the UK, and may eventually end up in the U.S.. Amazon also owns and operate the shoe retailer Zappos, despite being a retailer itself.
Obviously, acquiring webOS in real life wouldn't be so easy. HP doesn't seem particularly eager to unload the OS (despite its plans to run it into the ground), and there's probably an endless collection of charts and figures to show why webOS would be a poor investment for Amazon. But from a conceptual standpoint, it's enticing. And even if it doesn't acquire webOS specifically, it's time for Amazon to realize it's primed to become the next big thing in tech should it desire to be.
Chris Madden is a New York-based illustrator and designer. You
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