Tuesday, January 6, 2015

For once, LG may beat Samsung

Samsung has been touting the latest strategy for Tizen — this time as an integrated OS for its smart TVs. It’s earned dozens of news stories this month, all tied to its promotional efforts for this week’s CES show in Las Vegas.

Samsung has always been better at announcing and publicizing Tizen strategies than it has been at executing on them. It did not skimp on the grandiloquent predictions when its original incarnation (then called Bada) was announced in November 2009:

Samsung Launches Open Mobile Platform: Samsung bada – The Next Wave Of The Mobile Industry
November 10, 2009
Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., a leading mobile phone provider, today announced the launch of its own open mobile platform, Samsung bada [bada] in December. This new addition to Samsung's mobile ecosystem enables developers to create applications for millions of new Samsung mobile phones, and consumers to enjoy a fun and diverse mobile experience.

In order to build a rich smartphone experience accessible to a wider range of consumers across the world, Samsung brings bada, a new platform with a variety of mobile applications and content.

Based on Samsung's experience in developing previous proprietary platforms on Samsung mobile phones, Samsung can create the new platform and provide opportunities for developers. Samsung bada is also simple for developers to use, meaning it's one of the most developer-friendly environments available, particularly in the area of applications using Web services. Lastly, bada's ground-breaking User Interface (UI) can be transferred into a sophisticated and attractive UI design for developers.

Samsung will be able to expand the range of choices for mobile phone users to enjoy the smartphone experiences. By adopting Samsung bada, users will be able to easily enjoy various applications on their mobile.
Encouraged by Samsung, one analyst predicted that Tizen would make up “half of its portfolio by 2012.”

Instead, (according GSM Arena) only 11 bada models ever shipped — out of more than 3200 models during the past 5 yearsbefore bada was discontinued in favor of Tizen — a merger of bada and the Intel- and Nokia-flavored mobile Linuxes (among others).

Samsung announced its first Tizen phone — the Samsung Z  — June of 2014. A defeatured version of the Galaxy S5, it debuted not in Korea — or North America or Europe — but in Russia, suggesting the company did not think it could compete head to head with the latest Android and iOS phones. In fact, it was even ready for a third world BRIC country: the release was cancelled due to a lack of applications.

At CES this week, Samsung announced that Tizen would jump species — from its viral reservoir in rare smartphones and smartwatches — and become the only OS it uses for its smart TVs. I had three reactions.

First, so what? Yes, as the leading TV vendor Samsung can push out lots of copies of Tizen. But does anyone care what OS is in their VCR, DVR, Blu-ray, TV or home stereo? (I care about the OS in my car stereo — due to cellphone compatibility — but that’s a story for another time.)

Second, Samsung is saying: “let’s ship a platform in a product category where no one cares about app availability.” In other words, it may never win developer support for Tizen — and thus a large assortment of apps — but on TVs, who cares?

Finally, while Tizen frees Samsung from dependence on the evil Google, is shipping Tizen an asset for Samsung — or a liability?

Under the hood, Tizen has a very robust Linux, reflecting bada’s 2011 merger with MeeGo, which in turn built upon years of work by Nokia (with Maemo) and Intel (with its Maemo fork called Moblin). (It also included the failed Linux Mobile standard, LiMo).

However, a robust OS under the hood means nothing if it has a clunky UI. Exhibit A is the Symbian OS with Nokia’s aged S60 UI; Exhibits B-Z are every incarnation of desktop Linux known to mankind.

Which brings me to the dark horse: LG. I hadn’t noticed, but two years ago LG bought webOS, the failed Palm smartphone OS that HP owned for three years before dumping it. This week LG announced it’s using webOS for its own TVs.

Almost six years ago, webOS was a really good smartphone OS. But despite Palm’s efforts to double-down on its modern OS, it wasn’t enough to save the company. Now, webOS has a $100+ billion/year company behind it — and unlike with OS — a large volume of shipping products where it can run.

With a product strategy that usually consists of copying Samsung — much like Panasonic copied all its Japanese rivals — LG is rarely thought of as an innovative company. But here, instead of copying Samsung by developing its own lousy embedded OS, it bought a good one.

Again, will it matter? Will the TV OS matter more than screen size, brightness or — most importantly for a commodity product — price? As a former software guy, I want software to matter in providing differentiation. But I’m not going to bet even one dollar of our youngest’s college fund on it.

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