Say you’re Samsung. You own one of the world’s most popular mobile phone franchises. You’ve got a history of driving enormous revenues in the smartphone market — for many people, Samsung and Android are nearly synonymous terms when talking about the mobile phone industry. Headed into Mobile World Congress, easily one of the largest smartphone events of the year, you invite members of the press to attend… the debut of your next-generation operating system?
Apparently, yes. According to multiple reports, Samsung’s major unveil at MWC in February will focus on the operating system it’s been building for the past few years rather a smartphone launch. Presumably, Samsung will announce the Galaxy S5 at its own event, as it did last year with the S4. The fact that the Korean manufacturer wants to put such an emphasis on Tizen, however, is still surprising given that the OS has only shipped on a handful of camera SKUs to date.
There are multiple alternative mobile phone operating systems in various stages of development, from Mozilla’s Firefox OS to Ubuntu Touch. Tizen is one of the only projects backed by a company as massive as Samsung — but having made so much money on Android, why is Samsung looking to leave it in the first place? It’s all about control — but the story there is more complicated than you might think.
Ars Technica wrote a major piece on how Google has used the Android ecosystem (ostensibly open-source) to tie its own services to the platform. Over the past six years, Google introduced open-source applications that provided basic functionality, then replaced them with its own closed-source apps in later versions. Once it’s created a closed-source version, the open-source flavor is effectively orphaned. Updates for the open, Android versions of the keyboard, calendar, photo app, or music player have been few and far between since the “Google” version of each application debuted.
Here’s the kicker: If device makers reject one closed-source version of an application, they don’t get any of them. Google can’t stop a manufacturer like Amazon from using Android, but it controls all of the licensing terms for Google apps. Those licensing terms are reportedly much simpler if you’re a member of the Open Handset Alliance — and the contractual terms of the OHA license prohibit device manufacturers from forking Android.
Samsung’s work on Tizen illustrates that the company doesn’t much like the way Android has been turned into a Google-only show. The terms and agreements surrounding the Google applications that govern the Android experience (and that users want) are as much a prison as the ecosystem that Android was ostensibly supposed to combat. Faced with the difficulty of building its own competing applications at the heart of Android or targeting a new OS that isn’t encumbered by the same license terms, Samsung has decided to pour effort into both camps. Samsung’s own version of Google apps and its TouchWiz UI skin aren’t just annoyances (though they’re certainly annoying) — they’re the manufacturer’s attempt to insure it has acceptable alternatives if its arrangement with Google breaks down. The Google Play ecosystem only exacerbates the trend — apps that use Google APIs can’t run properly on devices like the Kindle Fire.
Tizen is the “OS B” to that “Plan B.” Ideally (from Samsung’s perspective) it can build an app store based on its own open environment. After all, Tizen is based on Linux, with its own coalition of developers and contributors, and it could absolutely help free the industry from the tyranny of…of… Hang on. Déjà vu. Wasn’t Android meant to do exactly that and release us from the shackles of Apple’s iOS?
We don’t know what devices (if any) Samsung will actually be demonstrating. Japanese manufacturer DoCoMo recently announced that it would not bring a Tizen phone to market, dashing Samsung’s plans. The company has only stated that devices will be on hand to demonstrate just how far the operating system has come in the past year. It’s not impossible to think we might see a few devices debut in 2014, but a wider launch seems likely to wait for 2015.