Samsung is easily the largest, most recognized Android manufacturer around. In some respects, Samsung may be bigger than Android and is often a “go to” handset for many consumers. Routinely, you’ll hear news about another new Samsung handset, or speculation on an upcoming model. Samsung, however, is increasingly becoming less an ally of Android, and more a potential foe. Considering all the recent trouble Samsung has caused with LG and Apple, as well as building its own OS in Asia, Google may be wise to distance itself from the juggernaut device maker. Then again, it may already be doing so.
Samsung and Android
Most of us may point to the Nexus S as the first Samsung device with Android, but we’d be wrong. Samsung has been making Android devices for quite some time, starting with the Moment in October of 2009. Running Cupcake, that device was the first Android device with a “slider” keyboard (the G1 actually swung out, not slid). A few months later, the Behold 2 debuted with Samsung’s Touchwiz interface, initially panned by critics as clunky and useless.
July of 2010 belonged to Samsung, as it released four Android handsets including the first Galaxy S model. The company would release a few other devices throughout the year, culminating in the aforementioned Nexus S that December. Samsung’s first Nexus device was its strongest showing to that point and solidified its relationship with Google and Android as a partner that could be relied on. The company followed that up with a second Nexus device in 2011, the Galaxy Nexus, as well as a plethora of strong Galaxy devices and tablets. Samsung, it seemed, was as integral a part of Android’s success as anyone outside of Google could be.
Recently, Samsung has taken exception to just about everyone it has come across. Some of it is very public and messy, while other issues are a bit less sensational. However it shakes out, Samsung is definitely making some rough waves.
We don’t need to rehash old wounds, but Samsung has been less than pleasant in its dealings with Apple. The ubiquitous $1 Billion settlement made headlines the world over and was considered by many a “win” for Apple. In what can only be considered a giant middle finger in Apple’s direction, Samsung then raised the price on chips Apple purchases from them by 20%. Being tied to Samsung for these chips until 2014 means Apple can’t just walk away, as it would probably like to.
Recently, Apple CEO Tim Cook held out an olive branch, noting that suing Samsung was Steve Jobs’ idea, not his. It was a classic “blame your predecessor” moment which Samsung would be wise to take graciously. Samsung could clean this all up by reaching out to Apple, but the company has a noted distaste for Apple. Everyone else from Google to HTC seems to be willing to bury the hatchet with Apple, so Samsung stands alone as the petulant holdout for Android harmony.
Samsung’s lawsuit with LG has been settled out of court, which our Joe Hindy correctly identified as a rare showing of maturity. While the merits of the lawsuit are of course debatable, the fact that Samsung was tangled in a lawsuit against another Android handset maker is cause for concern.
This lawsuit is indicative of a larger issue with Android handset makers: different companies, different agendas. Samsung has every right to sue another company it feels is infringing on its patented technology. As I’ve said before, it would be nice to see members of an association like the Open Handset Alliance treat each other with a little more decorum and not jump into court straight away. This case being settled out of court only means that a course of action similar to that which I’ve proposed before has merit and should be explored. As it stands, the only thing Samsung did in filing a lawsuit against LG was give itself unnecessary bad press.
How Samsung hurts Android
Samsung is only doing what it feels is necessary to succeed and there is really no arguing its modus operandi. The company made a ton of money, sold truckloads of mobile devices and solidified itself in the market. Success, however, comes at a price… and Android could pay it.
Samsung has taken to producing more Android handsets than any other manufacturer. While that’s convenient for us, it’s also disruptive and a bit annoying. It is absolutely its prerogative to do so, as Android is open source and available to any and all who would like to produce handsets. Only Samsung knows what is profitable and relevant to its business model, so producing as many devices as possible obviously works well for them.
However, making so many devices, in so many different categories, only hurts other manufacturers. In a sense, Samsung is hijacking Android. There is only so much money to be spent on devices and if a consumer walks into the store and sees 10 Samsung handsets to one LG, and maybe a Sony or something else, the numbers are stacked in Samsung’s favor. This saturation will only discourage manufacturers from jumping on board Android. We have long wanted Nokia to build an Android device, but why would Nokia do it? The Android device landscape is as fragmented as its OS iterations.
In a recent article, Chris Smith reported that ‘Galaxy’ was more searched than ‘Android’. While that’s possibly an affectation of popularity, it makes us wonder if Android is losing its identity in Samsung. People seem to be more concerned with the device than the operating system, which poses a problem for Android. If people start to associate their wants and needs with Samsung rather than being ingrained in Android, it would only be beneficial to Samsung. Once again, the rest of the Android manufacturing community is left to pick up scraps, or fight for the attention of a very dedicated (and small, according to market share) group of Android enthusiasts who appreciate their efforts on a different level.
Samsung is instrumental in a new operating system named Tizen. Currently targeting the Asian market, Samsung clearly saw an opportunity in a blossoming sector. Tizen also borrows quite a bit from Android, as both are Linux-based. The issue here is not Samsung’s involvement in Tizen, it’s the development of it. Tizen utilizes a lot of Samsung services, such as the Samsung Music Hub. A blossoming market and an OS developed by Samsung to compete with Android does not shout “partner” to me.
Software and services
Much of what Samsung develops is pretty proprietary stuff. As is evident in its anti-Apple ads, what can be done with a Samsung device tends to only work with other Samsung devices. Take, for instance, S-Beam. While in Las Vegas for CES, I somehow ended up in a casino. A nice lady brought me a drink as I sat down to get my bearings, when I realized a video poker machine was next to me. This machine also mysteriously had $20 of my money. In trying to figure out which combinations of buttons would give me my cash back, I noticed a TecTile on the machine. I excitedly pulled out my Nexus 4 to use the NFC feature, and got a blank screen.
In making my way out of the casino, I noticed another machine with a tag explaining the TecTiles positioned on almost every machine throughout the casino. It was a Samsung-only giveaway. “Scan the tiles with your Galaxy device to win!” it said. I won’t tell you what I said in response… this is a family website. The point is, Samsung is drawing a very distinct line between what it considers Android, and what the rest of the world thinks Android is.
Is there a middle ground with Samsung?
Well, not if you’re Apple. For the rest of the world, there probably is. Android is open source, so Samsung can essentially do as it pleases. It can continue down this path of vomiting handsets into the marke, and developing proprietary software if it likes, but I don’t know that it’s a wise move. Samsung is borrowing a page from Apple, which we’ve seen before from Amazon. Creating your own bubble in which to exist is probably what guys in suits tell each other is the right thing to do, but it’s not.
More manufacturer involvement is essential to the continued success of Android. While we may not fall in love with a Sony Xperia or LG Optimus G, they’re necessary. Innovation can be found in many ways and competition is a major contributing factor. Rather than saturate the market, it would be nice for Samsung to concentrate on producing amazing handsets that drive the rest of the industry. So far, it has done fairly well in that respect, but the rest of the world is catching up quickly, maybe even eclipsing them.
The Open Handset Alliance tends to keep everyone in check, but Samsung is not known for playing nice. I would venture to say it would leave the OHA if it felt it could do better without it, but that wouldn’t happen any time soon. Samsung needs Android right now. It has way too much business tied up in it to walk away, but it’s clearly making moves to have an option to leave later on.
Is Android protecting itself?
Make no mistake, nothing Google does is by accident or with abandon. When looking at recent developments, we’re given a few examples of Google taking steps to distance itself from Samsung. Google understands intrinsically what is going on here and is making some very savvy moves to thwart any damage.
Going with LG for the most recent Nexus device was not simply a means of “spreading the wealth” to other device makers. Google would have been happy to have Samsung make another Nexus phone, I’m sure. Moving to a different manufacturer was probably a move to forge a tighter bond with LG and let Samsung experience life without Google (and vice versa). The acquisition of Motorola also has the added benefit of allowing Google a bit of sovereignty in the manufacturing process, which we hope the rumored “X” device(s) will prove.
At one point, Google flexed its muscle on Acer by threatening to remove it from the Open Handset Alliance for working with a competing platform, thus threatening their partnership. That OS, named Aliyun, has some eerie similarities to Tizen. If Google asserted itself with Acer, would it dare do the same with Samsung? Time will tell, but Google should keep in mind everyone is watching them both to see how that develops.
If people want cool phones, Samsung is delivering in spades. It does make us wonder if much of the recent Android success is accidental, though. If people are worried more about what’s cool rather than what works best for them, it could be an issue. Then again, they’re still buying Android phones, so it has some benefit for Google on the back end via the Play Store.
Samsung purchased mSpot and renamed it Music Hub, which raised some eyebrows. Why would Samsung want its own music player? Well, it seems as though Tizen will be utilizing that service, so it’s not a big threat to Android… yet. The more Samsung draws that line in the sand between itself and the rest of the industry, the more troubles it will find itself in. Samsung doesn’t run this industry, and its actions may come back to haunt the company at some point.
Someone once told me “you can go along, or you can get along,” meaning I could do my own thing and play nice, or just go with the flow whether I agreed with it or not. Samsung is doing neither at this point and that will only breed dissent. It may not think so right now, but it needs the world more than the world needs Samsung.