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Mobile hardware powerhouse Samsung is simply the best at running Google's Android OS on its devices. It is the No. 1 vendor of the No. 1 mobile OS, which has left Apple in the dust in terms of smartphone market share.
Samsung did this by cultivating a user-friendly and (allegedly) more secure version of Android and building great hardware. Users responded in kind. In our debate below, the keep-Android side of the fence argues that Samsung doesn't have the software chops to go it alone and that, if it did use its own OS, it would lose access to hundreds of thousands of quality Android apps. And it's all about the apps.
But despite Samsung's success, is it really wise to keep using the same OS your competitors -- like Motorola and HTC -- are using? And what if Google decides to develop an advanced version of Android that runs only on handsets made by Motorola (which Google owns)? The key to dominance in mobile is creating an ecosystem, and according to the drop-Android side of the fence, Samsung has the resources to take its homemade OS, called Tizen, and create its own ecosystem ... and destiny.
In our debate, veteran mobile industry analysts Michael Finneran, president of dBrn Associates, and Craig Mathias, a principal with Farpoint Group, square off on this timely subject. What do you think? Please share your opinion in the discussions at the bottom of the page.
Will Samsung move to a new OS? Yes, sort of -- maybe not a new kernel, not with Linux being free and all. But new APIs free from the control of a competitor? Absolutely. And essential. Maybe even priceless.
Today, after all, it's really all about the ecosystem -- the combination of technologies, components, manufacturing, finished goods, apps/applications, media, distribution, service and support that attracts and keeps buyers. Apple is the unquestioned master here; Google and Amazon clearly get it. Even Microsoft is now well down the ecosystem path. Owning an ecosystem establishes differentiation and control of one's own destiny.
Consider where Samsung is today. Sure, it's the number-one vendor of Android-based devices, and Android is the leading mobile OS by far. An OS plays the role of glue in an ecosystem, providing commonality across product lines, and, again, differentiation. Unfortunately for Samsung, though, that differentiation accrues large to Google, which uses Android to leverage its own ecosystem. Importantly, Google also owns Motorola, which directly competes with Samsung. So, then, this situation isn't good -- in fact, it's very, very bad. Apart from the lack of differentiation, suppose Google decided to build a version of Android that ran only on Motorola handsets -- a two-tier OS strategy, keeping the good stuff for itself? This would be like Samsung being unable to supply Apple with displays for the iPad -- minor revenue hiccup to Samsung, but a flat-out disaster for Apple.
Samsung is known to be spending big bucks on Tizen, an HTML 5-centric project with the street cred and independence of the Linux Foundation, as well as its own trade association, that includes an SDK built on top of a Linux-based OS that can trace its roots to MeeGo and a number of other mobile OS efforts, like LiMo and Bada.
Samsung recently completed a $2.2 million Port-a-Thon contest to attract developers, and established a Tizen App Challenge with $4 million in prizes. Does this sound like Tizen is a fun side project for a company firmly committed to Android? I think not. Tizen instead looks like an easy way for Samsung to further establish and differentiate its ecosystem and free itself from dependence upon a competitor -- again, two essential goals.
The downside? New operating environments are no guarantee of success. BlackBerry 10 is an unqualified failure, and Windows Phone isn't exactly setting the world on fire. But regardless, being in control of all of the pieces one needs to build an ecosystem is essential for leadership, and a game that only very large companies can play. Samsung is just such, and it has the marketing muscle to pull this off. A little more differentiation, a lot less dependence on competitors, plus building on its overwhelmingly positive image of quality and leadership. Sounds like a plan.
So where will this effort go? Samsung sells a very popular Chromebook -- so why not a Tizenbook? Great idea! Phones and tablets? Duh. A TizenTV? It's already a leader in televisions. TizenMediaPlayers? TizenCameras? TizenInCars? TizenAppliances? TizenGadgets? EmbeddedTizen? You get the point. Imagine a Tizen ecosystem, open but dominated by Samsung. Is there a better strategy today? Not likely.
And, yes, Samsung could continue to sell Android, or products based on any other operating system, or provide Android compatibility mode on Tizen to pick up a ton of current apps. But there's nothing better than having control over one's destiny, and Samsung is one of the few companies on this planet large and powerful enough to make this happen. I'm convinced it must, and it will.
Michael Finneran makes some good arguments in his column. Android is indeed the dominant mobile OS today, owing in large part to Linux being free, Apple's fundamentally closed mentality, and Google's great vision and marketing -- it's kind of like Windows vs. Mac all over again. It's also true that Samsung has prospered under this reality, differentiating where it can. But the old saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" does not apply anymore. Now it's "fix it before it breaks -- because it will break." That's why Tizen is essential to Samsung's future success.
Even Michael acknowledges that Google could resort to heavy-handed tactics in the pursuit of profits. And he also points out the possibility of a shift to the cloud with respect to apps, which I also see as both fundamental and inevitable for reasons of cost and the logistics of mobile operations. And I've acknowledged that the large installed base of Android apps could be supported on -- or, more properly, next to -- Tizen while enabling Samsung to have the control over its destiny that it so fundamentally needs.
Sorry, Michael, but you have not persuaded me here. Samsung is about to shift directions big time. The risks are minimal, and the potential rewards, again, are priceless.
Samsung needs to hold onto Android as its main mobile operating system. My opinion is based on the fact that Samsung has taken a strong strategic position with Android, recognized its challenges, and set about to address them in a way that will be beneficial to both enterprise users and consumers.
Samsung is far and away the biggest seller of Android-compatible smartphones. According to IDC, the company sells 39.1% of the world's Android smartphones; LG is second with 6.5%. Rather than backing away from Android, Samsung is doubling down on its bet and using Android as the foundation for its own Apple-like franchise.
To be sure, the Android ecosystem is a mess. But it's a successful mess. Android now dominates Apple iOS in worldwide shipments, according to IDC, with a market share of 79.3% compared to iOS's 13.2% for Q2 2013. Unlike Apple's command-and-control mentality, the open nature of the Android platform and the number of manufacturers building it into their devices has led to a maddening variety of user interfaces as each manufacturer looks to make its own mark on the OS.
Samsung is working hard to develop the "best and brightest" version of Android with a user experience akin to what Apple users get on their iPhones and iPads. Unlike Apple's one-size-fits-all philosophy (well, "two" if we're talking about the iPad), Samsung is cranking out more sizes and configurations than we can keep track of. However, with a common software configuration, users will be able to move comfortably from whatever size or type of device (smartphone, tablet or phablet) to any other.
Beyond that, it's about the apps, which will be key to smartphone acceptance for the foreseeable future. Were Samsung to walk away from Android, it would be walking away from the extensive library of Android apps. According to Android community AppBrain, as of October 2013, there were slightly more than 650,000 good quality apps in the Android catalogue. If Samsung were to go off with its own OS, that number would drop to zero.
Beyond the unwelcome variety of user interfaces, Android has been the poster child for mobile malware, and according to McAfee, now accounts for more than 90% of the mobile malware it's uncovered. Samsung Apps, the company's app store, appears to be taking steps to address that. According to Samsung's website, "Samsung Apps collaborates closely with sellers to secure compatibility and suitability of applications with Samsung smart products." I'm not quite sure what that means, but it appears Samsung is at least taking some steps to vet applications before they go up on the site.
Probably the biggest area where we've seen Samsung differentiating its version of Android is in enterprise security. In a bid to offer enterprise customers an alternative to BlackBerry-grade security, the company introduced its Samsung for Enterprise (SAFE) program that now includes Knox, its secure container.
I can see only two scenarios where Samsung would part company with Android. The first would be if Google altered the playing field for Android in such a way as to make the platform less attractive to third parties. That would probably entail giving its Motorola Mobility subsidiary the inside track on Android and becoming a competitor to Samsung, LG, Lenovo and the other Android hardware manufacturers -- a move not unlike what Microsoft did in bringing out its own line of Surface tablets.
The other would be if the mobile device market shifted from an app-based model to a cloud-based model, and Samsung's Linux-based Tizen OS with its HTML 5 capabilities altered the market's priorities. Longer term, that may well be how the mobility market develops, and it would certainly change the dynamics. But for now, I'm betting on Samsung sticking with Android.
Samsung might try to create its own ecosystem, but it doesn't have the chops to pull it off. The picture Craig Mathias paints in his column is compelling, but to convince me you'd have to change the names. First off, Google is showing no interest in breathing new life into Motorola Mobility, whose market share is now buried in the "Other" category. Working with "frienemies" is the new normal. I take Google at its word that it's not going for a Microsoft style "compete with our partners" strategy.
The bigger reason is that I don't think Samsung is that good on the software side. Big, gaudy screens it's good at. A compelling and engaging user experience? Not so much. A port-a-thon is a great idea for building your applications library, but you still need the vision and finesse to craft it into something that engages the user. With Samsung doing this, we'll be looking at the next BlackBerry, not the next Apple.
If hardware were the key differentiator, Samsung would have a shot. But this is a software game and Google has it all over Samsung on that front. Samsung can't go it alone.