Would Nokia-Palm merger spell doom for WebOS?

It's not a sure thing, but if Nokia were to acquire Palm could the vendor juggle three mobile operating systems?

If I had a dollar for every instance of misguided Wall Street speculation, I might be richer than a trader, but let's just imagine that Nokia will acquire Palm, as reported on Friday. What would happen to Palm's WebOS, the mobile operating system that debuted last June with the Palm Pre?

If an acquisition happened, Nokia would have three operating systems in its smartphone portfolio: Symbian, Maemo, and WebOS. That's a lot of platforms for one company, so I wouldn't be surprised if Nokia were to cut one of them loose.

Symbian is probably safe. It's the most widely-used mobile operating system in the world, and Gartner predicts that it'll stay that way until at least 2012, probably longer.

If either WebOS or Maemo had to go, it'd be a tough call. Nokia just released the N900, a powerful smartphone that, let's face it, has no chance of catching the iPhone, but at least shows that Nokia wants to compete. In that regard, the N900 somewhat resembles the Palm Pre, which was supposed to be an iPhone Killer but hasn't sold well.

WebOS has been well-received, and it's arguably the best part of either the Palm Pre or the Palm Pixi, but its Achilles heel is a slow drip of new third-party apps. Just now, five months after the Pre's arrival, WebOS has an official Facebook app.

Nokia has the Ovi Store, which still pales in comparison to the iPhone's App Store but can at least attract developers by running across multiple devices and operating systems, from Symbian phones to the N900, and even on Nokia's Booklet 3G netbook. This lure would only strengthen if Nokia simplified its portfolio of mobile operating systems.

I'm not saying that if Nokia acquired Palm today, that WebOS would die tomorrow, but it's conceivable that Nokia would phase it out over time. More likely, I think, is that Nokia would promote some harmony across its operating systems with the Ovi Store, replacing Palm's app store with its own for a more focused battle against the iPhone's App Store and the Android Market.

But that's just speculation.

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Jared Newman

PC World (US online)
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