Conflicting forces: can Samsung and Google get along?

May 9, 2014
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The two driving forces behind Android’s victory march are engaged in an uneasy relationship that’s proving to be very unpredictable. Google’s Android Wear platform and the impending Android Silver program suggest that they are definitely not on the same page. Samsung has launched Tizen on the Galaxy Gear 2 smartwatch and a smartphone is still expected to follow. Is a horrible break up inevitable, or can Google and Samsung find a way to work together?

Coming together

Cast your mind back to January and you might remember us asking can Samsung benefit by breaking away from Android? At the time we concluded that, although the two companies are pulling in different directions, both still benefit from the relationship, so an imminent break was not on the cards. A few days later they penned a 10 year cross-license patent agreement, and a few days after that, there was the surprising news about Google selling Motorola to Lenovo and Samsung scaling back its Android customizations.

Was this lasting peace or just a temporary ceasefire?

Not giving much ground

At MWC in February Samsung unveiled its new smartwatches, the Gear 2 and the Gear 2 Neo, both powered by Tizen. It also launched its latest flagship, the Galaxy S5, which proved to be a typically feature-packed Samsung smartphone with a slightly tweaked TouchWiz UI. Samsung was smart enough not to go on about all the software features this time around and a quieter and humbler unveil was perceived as a return to form after the S4.

Early reports suggest that the Galaxy S5 is selling well in the face of some excellent competition, not least the HTC One M8 and the Sony Xperia Z2. Samsung has a well-oiled marketing machine and extremely ambitious targets for the Galaxy brand, aiming for 35 million units shipped in the first three months.

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The S5 release might have been low key and the media hub has been dumped. The S5 shipped to carriers with around 40 pre-installed apps compared to the 50 that went out in the S4, but that’s still plenty of Samsung apps that offer the same things as Google apps or try to steer you toward Samsung services, including S Voice, My Magazine, S Health, and its own email, browser, and a seriously beefed up camera.

All in all it’s a pretty minor scaling back and Samsung still deviates further from Google’s Android than the rest of the big OEMs.

Is Samsung on board?

In March Google unveiled Android Wear, a new platform to drive wearable technology and make sure that Android devices are linked to the next wave of smartwatches. You would imagine Samsung knew this was coming and yet it pressed ahead with Tizen for the Gear 2. In April, Han-kil Yoon, Samsung’s senior VP of strategy confirmed that there will be an Android-based smartwatch later this year.

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As for that overdue Tizen smartphone, it’s supposed to be landing around the end of Q2, so it should be along very soon. Yoon admitted to Reuters that the original Tizen launch was botched and went on to explain “We have changed our strategy and will release the phones in a few countries where we can do well”. That doesn’t sound like a huge fanfare release and he was also quoted as saying that Android “still needs to be our main business”.

Make no mistake, Samsung still completely dominates Android. According to IDC Samsung’s smartphone market share in Q1 this year was 30.2%. Two thirds of Android smartphones are sold by Samsung, according to Localytics, which also reported that the Galaxy S5 accounted for 0.7% of all Android smartphones in the world by the end of its first week on sale.

The silver elephant in the room

The revelations that Google may be planning to end the Nexus line and fold the Google Play Experience program into a rebranded initiative, codenamed Android Silver, cannot be pleasing to Samsung.

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The idea is that Google will subsidize the development and promote the line, which will potentially include a number of devices from different manufacturers, with a large marketing campaign including kiosks in carrier stores. In return, the OEMs will ditch their own UIs and bloatware and move closer to a vanilla Android experience. The fragmentation issue and update delays will be swept away.

Google definitely wants a smoother, better Android experience, and it would like OEMs to move in this direction. If cutting SD card support was a stick, then perhaps Silver is a carrot.

What’s in it for Samsung?

Why would Samsung give up on its own ecosystem and shave off the features and software that differentiate its devices? There’s been speculation that Samsung wants the Nexus line dead because of the aggressively low pricing, but it’s not like Samsung is struggling to sell phones. Without sales figures we don’t actually know how successful the Nexus 5 was, only that Google considered it a win.

We can’t see Samsung jumping onboard with Silver without a compelling reason, but it is the ultimate scattergun approach company. The South Korean manufacturer has devices in every form factor and category conceivable. It will continue to make its own Android devices in all shapes, sizes, and price points, but that probably won’t preclude it from making a Silver device as well. It seemed happy enough to release a Galaxy S4 Google Play edition, perhaps to test the waters.

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It may like the idea of selling content itself and gaining market share with its own Tizen platform, but that doesn’t mean it can make a success of it, and it definitely doesn’t mean it’s going to dump a profitable scene like Android. We don’t really know how good Tizen is or how Samsung will deal with the app situation. It was telling that the Tizen Gear 2 dropped the Galaxy name; Samsung is far from ready to jump ship. If there’s nothing to stop Samsung having fingers in all the pies, then that’s probably what it will do.

What is Google up to?

Google wants its services on as many devices as possible by any means necessary. The drive towards cheaper smartphones was all about increasing market share. Competition in the low and mid-range is fierce, but that’s not where the real profits lie. If Google is truly taking aim at the premium end of the market with Silver then it’s a much bigger threat to Samsung.

It’s possible that Silver is actually Google’s attempt to combat Samsung’s dominance of the platform. Maybe it wants to give the other OEMs a hand to compete with the Galaxy brand, but you can bet it won’t want to alienate the biggest Android manufacturer around. It could prove a tricky line to walk.

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