Samsung and Android: A slow breakup on the horizon

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The news this week that top Android developer Steve Kondik has left Samsung came just days after Google announced Android creator Andy Rubin was stepping aside to be replaced by the executive who leads Google Chrome.

Despite executive chairman Eric Schmidt’s assurances that the Android and Chrome OSes will “remain separate for a very, very long time,” the replacement of Rubin by Chrome leader Sundar Pichai would seem to indicate otherwise. After all, shouldn’t a full-fledged, incredibly popular OS like Android continue to have one top executive devoted to it? And in the history of businesses, when has something not changed once two previously separate units were put under one leader? Corporations make these moves because they want something to change.

Against this backdrop of uncertainty regarding Android’s future, the departure of Kondik – the founder of the CyanogenMod Android aftermarket firmware and a highly touted hire for Samsung in August 2011 – raises questions about Samsung’s commitment to Android.

This is no small thing. Samsung is the most successful maker of Android phones, by far. The South Korean manufacturer owns 42.5% of the Android market, and Google’s OS was in nearly 70% of the mobile phones shipped in Q4, according to Gartner.  

For the world’s No. 1 mobile device manufacturer in terms of units sold – and second behind only Apple in mobile profitability – what possible benefit could come from walking away from the OS driving its successful line of Galaxy devices after nearly doubling market share in one year? It wouldn’t make sense.

Yet Samsung continues to work with Intel on another mobile operating system, called Tizen. Further, while Samsung often has downplayed Android in its marketing pitches, it now essentially no longer publicly acknowledges the OS that runs its top-selling devices.  

In an ad campaign for its Samsung for Enterprise (SAFE) security layer launched last week and aimed at the enterprise mobile market – where the company trails far behind Apple – there is no mention of Android.

There was a more high-profile omission on March 14, when Samsung launched the Galaxy S4 smartphone at a glitzy, live-streamed event in New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Altimeter Group mobile analyst Chris Silva was there for the hour-long show.

“They didn’t even mention Android until it came up in a slide about the phone’s specs as the audience was walking out,” Silva recalls.

Wharton management professor Saikat Chaudhuri also noticed Android’s absence from the Galaxy S4 launch, concluding that "Samsung is distancing itself from Google and Android."

Distancing, if not ditching. Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, suggests Samsung is patiently biding its time and leveraging its strengths.

"I think that for now Samsung is currently playing two hands at once, gaining from the continuing market uptake of Android devices and also profiting from its continuing work on Tizen," King says.

But while there are rumors that Samsung could ship Tizen-powered devices as soon as this fall, Silva says Tizen is "a long way from getting any sort of wide-scale major adoption by users, outside of a three-year horizon."

"It’s taken Android roughly three or four years to get where it is today in terms of the numbers of users it has and in terms of the prominence it has," Silva says. "In some ways it’s still catching up to iOS. So it’s going to take a lot of time to get to the point where another OS provides viable alternatives."

But Samsung's work with Intel on their joint Linux-based mobile OS has some strong potential upside, King says.

"Tizen could eventually allow Samsung to enjoy the best of three worlds—owning its own unique operating environment, but one (with the help of OpenMobile's Application Compatibility Layer) that is supported on both ARM and Intel silicon that can also run Android apps," King says. "The last point is critical—without Android apps, Tizen’s market opportunities would dwindle appreciably."

"You’ll see Tizen and Android running in parallel until there’s a switch," Silva says. "It’s entirely likely that Samsung will have a line, maybe even a primary line of devices, that will run on Tizen or something different. But they need to gradually get there and bring consumers along with them instead of making a sharp change."

Even though Silva himself noticed Android's absence from the Galaxy S4 event, he doesn't read too much into it.

"Samsung is in the business of selling Samsung devices," he says. "They can’t do that by marketing Android."

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