Samsung seeks a little distance from Android with Tizen

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Android runs in nearly eight of every 10 new smartphones worldwide (according to IDC), making the mobile operating system seem invincible.

But there are some chinks in its armor.

Some analysts expect Android’s market share to drop for the first time in 2014, as devices running Windows Phone gain share while Apple’s second-place iOS remains flat. More Android smartphones will ship overall in 2014 than did last year because the market for smartphones is still growing, but Android’s share will decline slightly, from about 78% in 2013 to 76% in 2014.

Samsung, the largest maker of Android smartphones, is expected to introduce smartphones running on an alternative platform, Tizen, in 2014. Tizen is an open source OS that Samsung and Intel have been promoting to developers.

“There is no question in my mind that Samsung is trying to distance itself as much as possible from Android as a brand,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Kantar World Panel. “I think Samsung will try to create its own ecosystem on Tizen with devices able to run Android apps as well as Tizen.”

Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy added, “To better control its own destiny for wearables, mobile devices and inside the home, Samsung needs to own the entire experience and also the services.” Samsung can’t own the entire experience with Android alone. Moorhead said he expects Samsung to ship Tizen devices sometime in 2014, but that the transition will be slow.

Hurry up and wait

Analysts differ on how drastic the shift to Tizen and away from Android will be for Samsung.

Samsung’s work with Tizen is “about spreading their risk, because if all their development is under one [Android] platform, they are at risk,” said Kevin Burden, an analyst at Strategy Analytics. “It’s hard to think of anything threatening Android with its nearly 80% of the market, but remember, Symbian [under Nokia] at one point had 70% of the market.”

In 2008, a year after the first iPhone came out, Symbian dropped to a 50% market share, down from 62% the prior year. Now that part of Nokia is being purchased by Microsoft, Symbian has all but disappeared. “It was a fast fall for Symbian, and we’ve learned that the mobile industry can change quickly,” Burden said.

“In just five years it can be totally different,” he said. “The worst thing that any company that builds Android devices can think is that Android will always be number one and is unflappable. If they feel ‘we’ve got this in the bag,’ it can be game over quickly. That kind of hubris attitude got companies like BlackBerry, Palm, and Nokia into trouble over the last few years.”

Strategy Analytics said new Android sales peaked in 2013 at 78% of the market and will begin to slide to 76% in 2014. Meanwhile, because of growth in the overall smartphone market, Android will sell about 880 million devices in 2014, up from 783 million in 2013.

Tizen hasn’t recorded significant sales so far, but could sell 7 million to 8 million devices in 2014, nearly all under the Samsung brand, for a market share of less than 1%, Burden said. Tizen could grow to 45 million devices in 2018, assuming Samsung sticks with it. “Remember, Samsung backed Bada as an OS, and then bailed on Bada,” he added.

Not breaking up with Android

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said Tizen’s influence over Samsung doesn't mean Samsung is moving off Android. “Samsung is staying with the core of Android, but like so many other vendors, it is trying to differentiate itself on features and functions not available in standard versions of Android,” Gold said. 

Since “Samsung does one of everything ... you will see Samsung experiment with all kinds of options, like Tizen,” he said.

Google didn’t comment on its relationship with Samsung, but Samsung recently issued a statement to Computerworld saying that “Samsung remains committed to Android.” At the same time, Samsung said it “has been actively working on the Tizen ecosystem, together with Tizen Association members and partners. Samsung is committed to delivering the best mobile experience based on the open platform and a full-ready eco-system around it.”

One way that Tizen could gain momentum at Samsung, or elsewhere, is by attracting more HTML 5 developers who could fairly easily convert Android apps to use with the Tizen OS. HTML 5 provides Web-based applications as an alternative to native apps purchased in the Google Play store, but HTML 5 so far has been slow to catch on because it can cause slower device performance than native apps.

Some HTML 5 developers see a greater use of graphical processing units in new mobile devices in 2014 to improve HTML 5 performance, however. “As applications move beyond the smartphone and into vehicles, wearables, TVs and even the refrigerator, developers are figuring out how to build for those apps, and the only technology that makes sense right now is HTML 5,” said Abe Elias, chief technology officer for Sencha, a Web app development company.

“Everybody wants to be in control of their own destiny and Tizen offers that ability to Samsung,” Elias said. Samsung already has access to Android developers and could use that group to build a new ecosystem based on Tizen. “Developers would have a chance for profitability with Tizen.”

Samsung probably won’t start shipping Tizen products until wireless carriers demand such products, Milanesi. But once Tizen is ready for the market, consumers might not even pay much attention to the switch.

Samsung is “trying to make Android the engine inside the [metaphorical] car that nobody cares about and creating a connection with users by layering on a set of applications and services that should tie consumers back to Samsung,” Milanesi said. “If Samsung is successful in doing this, and in running the new Magazine user experience [already used in some Samsung tablets and Note devices] on top of Android, users might not even notice the switch when it happens in favor of Tizen.”

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