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HTC is developing a smartphone OS for China, and it’s probably going to fail

Failed TestYesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that HTC is working on a mobile OS that’s targeted directly at the Chinese market. It will reportedly feature heavy integration of Chinese social media platforms, and be released before the end of the year. It’s an interesting idea, but I am, to put it mildly, very skeptical of the company’s prospects for success. Here’s why:

HTC isn’t really a software company. Sure, obviously the company has some experience with developing mobile software to go along with its hardware, but there’s a reason no apps are listed on the company’s products page: HTC makes handsets and accessories. It’s worth noting that the company had similar plans to create or buy its own mobile OS a few years ago, and ultimately scrapped them. Turns out making an operating system from the ground up is pretty damn hard!

If you build it, they won’t (necessarily) come. Even if HTC can make a great OS, that’s no guarantee that anyone will actually use it. Even Microsoft has struggled to get people to ditch Android and iOS for Windows Phone, and it certainly has more experience in the software department than HTC does. Android and iOS dominate China, and with domestic Android ROMs like Xiaomi already targeting the Chinese market, what reason will there be for users to switch operating systems? Heck, even Apple has long-since integrated Chinese social media in iOS; what’s going to be special about this new HTC OS?

A shortage of apps. At the end of the day, it’s all about the third-party apps. Part of the reason that Windows Phone has failed to really challenge Apple or Google for the smartphone OS crown is that it doesn’t have as many available. But Apple, Google, and Microsoft — all companies that have developed software products from the beginning — likely all have better connections than HTC when it comes to attracting third-party developers and getting them to bother redoing their apps again for yet another operating system. It seems likely most developers will want to wait until the platform has a significant number of users before they bother, which means that HTC will have to somehow get a significant number of users to adopt its operating system even though it will likely lack most of their favorite apps. That seems like a tough sell.

No precedent. Many in China have tried to make a domestic OS but, unless you count Android ROMs, none have really succeeded. Earlier this year I translated part of a post written by Chinese tech writer Ji Yongqing that goes a long way towards explaining why China can’t make its own mobile OS, and some of that is relevant here as well.

Targeting a single country won’t really work for an operating system. While China is doubtless a unique market with its own desires and demands, smartphones are simply too global for a pigeonholed OS to be successful. The most popular apps in China are developed all over the world. Chinese users buy handsets designed by companies from all over the place. And as they increasingly travel for work or pleasure, they’re probably going to want phones that aren’t designed for just one country. When a Chinese student, for example, goes to college in the US, they can keep their Android phone and simply replace their China-centric apps with US-centric ones. But would a China-focused HTC OS still support apps like Yelp or Facebook? I can’t see why developers would bother porting them to the new system given the lack of users their services have in China, and that means that HTC’s OS would probably be fairly useless outside China. That matters to some users already, and as China’s economy improves, it will matter to even more.

I hope that HTC proves me wrong, as I’d love to see some more competition in the smartphone OS market. But I certainly won’t be holding my breath for success; I suspect that a year from now the top smartphone operating systems are still going to be Android, and iOS, with everybody else — HTC included, if it actually does release an OS — lagging very far behind.

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