Latest Samsung smartphone could spell the end for Android
The launch of Samsung's Galaxy SIV, packed full of native apps and Samsung-specific features could further fragment the Android ecosystem and the platform's ability to offer its users quality apps.
Latest Samsung smartphone could spell the end for Android
One thing that Samsung could never be accused of in its ongoing feud with Apple is of aping its closest direct rival's obsession with secrecy. By the time the South Korean's latest Android flagship was launched late on Thursday evening, its full tech specs, appearance and revolutionary features were all common knowledge -- having been leaked weeks in advance.
But what the launch does underline is Samsung's growing power within the Android marketplace. Its outgoing premium handset is already the world's most popular Android device and the handset it replaced, the Galaxy SII, is the world's second most popular device (in all eight of the world's top 10 Android devices are Samsung-built). And that is in a global market where, according to Google's CEO Larry Page, 750 million smartphones and tablets have been activated since 2008.
In fact, according to research by analyst Benedict Evans, we have already reached a point where Samsung ‘Galaxy' has become a more popular search term than Android for web users searching for information about Android-powered smartphones. The concern is that Samsung's success is making it so powerful that it could dictate the future direction of Android, or abandon it altogether.
Samsung's exclusive features and content increase the distancefrom other offerings
The Galaxy SIV features an impressive array of new features that will not be available to users of any other Android device, such as smart scrolling -- a feature that tracks head and eye position so that text automatically moves up or down the screen -- and a gesture interface that can understand hand movements above the screen as well as touches applied to the display's surface. These, and other technologies such as voice recognition are built into the Samsung ‘skin' that sits on top of the Android operating system. They are not apps available for free, or at a price, that anyone can access from Google Play.
As TechCrunch's Darrell Etherington commented:"More than any other Android device manufacturer, Samsung made a point with its latest generation of flagship device to outline software features that help it stand apart...The list of features that were Samsung-specific was long, and many of those actually included services that can be considered alternatives to Google's own offerings."
And as more people in the world own a Samsung device than any other Android smartphone, what Samsung presents is what most people believe Android is like. But nothing could be farther from the truth. The operating system is different on every handset from every manufacturer and also contains other tweaks and features installed by the network carrier.
At the SIV launch, Samsung also made a great deal of its new Samsung Hub, which offers SIV users access to multimedia content and apps, further pulling the Samsung customer base away from Google Play and even closer to its own brand.
Android -- time for a refocusing?
In short, with the exception of Samsung, Android is, to use Microsoft's Corporate VP of Windows Phone, Terry Myerson's words: "Android is pretty much a confusing mess."
Google needs to reassert control over the operating system and, according to The Wall Street Journal, this need for control and to temper Samsung's success was the primary motivation behind the search giant's acquisition of Motorola. Worried that if Samsung's position were to grow any stronger, it could create a forked or custom version of Android, Google bought a smartphone company to, in the words of Android's outgoing head, Andy Rubin, "hedge" against this eventuality.
Many believe this thinking is also the chief motivation behind installing Sundar Puchai as the new head of Android. His experience of developing Google's Chrome desktop browser and operating system will make him the ideal candidate for fusing Google's computer, tablet and smartphone operating systems into one app-centric product that works seamlessly across all devices.
So, what impact will this potential war have on the consumer? If the Android ecosystem does continue to fragment, then the difference in user experience and available apps from country to country and from brand to brand will become bigger and bigger. However, if Google reasserts control by building a handset which is a worthy competitor to the SIV (as is widely rumored), some balance could be restored. Likewise, if Android is extended to incorporate desktops, then the user base will grow again and with that, so will the number of available apps and the number of exciting developers that want to create new products and services for the platform and its users. Or, consumers could save themselves any future worries by switching to an iPhone which offers perfect hardware and software integration, boasts more apps than Android, and offers owners in all territories worldwide essentially the same user experience. Either way, 2013 is going to be a very interesting year for the Android community.
Reasons why Samsung abandoning or "forking" Android is not plausible:
1) Samsung's success has come about because of Android, not on account of their own strengths. Thus abandoning Android will severely cripple Samsung's success because they don't have another good smartphone operating system (OS) to fall back on. Think about it: before Android, Samsung's smartphones were running their in-house OS, "bada". Sales of bada handsets now pale so much in comparison to Samsung's Android offerings that reports say Samsung will discontinue bada as a standalone OS. Another OS Samsung uses is Windows Phone (currently WP8), however consumer reception to that is equally dismal and Samsung cannot be expected to rely on it.
2) The "fragmentation" of Android has no bearing on Samung's reliance on it. This topic really gets my goat because many writers seem to have no idea what fragmentation really means or how it affects anything, and this article is a prime example of such ignorance.
Sure, Samsung's software customisations differentiate the Galaxy brand from other manufacturers' Android phones (so this "fragments" Android), but this is only natural and is A DESIRED OUTCOME for Samsung. Did you know that Apple's iOS is similarly fragmented? For example, iOS 6 on the iPhone 5 has more features than iOS 6 on the iPhone 4S. This is precisely what Apple wants, because who would buy a newer, more expensive iPhone 5 if the 4S offered the exact same experience?
The article also goes on to say that fragmentation causes differences in user experience from device to device and country to country... Erm, why is this considered a problem at all? Again, iOS has exactly the same issue: some app developers won't let you install their apps if you have a phone with hardware that can't handle it (say an old iPhone 3G), or if you're in a country they didn't plan on releasing their content to (eg because of copyright issues outside of the USA).
Thus, whether or not Android is actually fragmented is not an issue at all for Samsung. All they need to care about is providing the latest and best features in their Galaxy phones.
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