Latest Samsung smartphone could spell the end for Android

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.