Why Samsung needs to woo developers

The Korean company builds Android phones, but it still needs developers to make apps specific to its devices. CNET explains why.

Curtis Sasaki, Samsung senior vice president of Media Solutions Center America, talks about the company's commitment to developers at its conference in San Francisco. Shara Tibken/CNET
SAN FRANCISCO -- For Samsung, courting developers isn't just a nice side project. It's a push that's vital to the company's future.

The Korean company is the world's biggest mobile phone and TV vendor. It sells more Android smartphones than LG, Lenovo, Huawei, ZTE, and Motorola combined, and many consumers equate Samsung's Galaxy brand with Google's operating system. As a smartphone vendor, Samsung benefits from the Android ecosystem and the huge Google Play app store.

But being just another Android player is not enough, at least not if Samsung wants to continue its strong growth and hold onto its position at the top of the electronics food chain. Instead, the company has to set itself apart from everyone else in the market. It needs something that boosts its own ecosystem and connects its various devices together. It needs to make customers loyal to its devices and offer software and services they really use. It also needs to put itself on the same level as Apple and Google, owning the relationship with consumers instead of simply selling them gadgets.

But Samsung knows it can't do it all alone. That's where app makers come in.

Samsung this week is hosting its first developer conference at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco's Union Square neighborhood. Sessions encompass the various parts of Samsung's business, from mobile to TVs and home appliances. About 1,300 developers signed up for the event, most hoping to learn more about Samsung and figure out ways to partner with the Korean electronics giant. And Samsung hopes they'll all create apps that take advantage of features unique to its devices, such as S Pen.

"At the end of the day, how do you please consumers?" asked Curtis Sasaki, senior vice president of Samsung's Media Solution Center America business. "Consumers want to get the best possible product, and on top of that product they want the best possible applications that leverage what they actually purchased."

A big reason Samsung is courting developers is to offer consumers a reason to buy its devices beyond just the sleek hardware. It's getting harder and harder to differentiate on hardware alone, and that becomes even more true as smartphones start to commoditize. In the future, Samsung will have to find other ways to make money from its devices beyond just enhancing the screen or other hardware capabilities.

Unfortunately for Samsung, software and services have never been its strong suit, as the company readily admits. It sometimes releases features that don't work very well or are confusing to use. However, Samsung is making a big push to get better, both through internal efforts and by partnering with startups. Its Media Solutions Center works on creating software products like the WatchOn app, while the Open Innovation Center seeks relationships with small companies.

Samsung wants Android apps that stand apart, starting now
"We need to work with people on the outside," said David Eun, head of Samsung's Open Innovation Center. "We need to partner. We need to have a sharing of learnings and best practices to really figure out what kinds of new, unique experiences we can create for our users."

Samsung also needs to find a way to make customers more loyal to its products. It's not too hard to switch from one Android vendor to another. One way to make them stay is by offering unique features that users can't get anywhere else. Along with apps created by Samsung, the company hopes it also will include a significant number from partners.

Another big reason for Samsung to work with developers is to get them to create apps that work across its various devices. It not only makes smartphones and tablets but also sells TVs, home appliances, printers, and other items. But so far, those devices don't really talk to each other or offer any unique capabilities for consumers.

Samsung also knows it can't rely on Google and Android forever. As much as the companies say their relationship is strong, reports about tension are tough to ignore. Google has vowed not to favor Motorola, but there's no guarantee it won't change its mind in the future. And while Samsung says it's not interested in forking Android, much like Amazon has done, things could change.

Gregory Lee, president of Samsung Telecommunications America, kicks off the company's developer conference in San Francisco. Shara Tibken/CNET
"Samsung has done tremendously well thus far simply taking what Google has given it, adding some things on top, and running with it," Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart said. "But should it find itself without as willing a partner as Google...Samsung is going to need its own software and services platform."

Then of course, there's Tizen, the fledgling open-source software being co-developed with Intel. The product has faced delays, partly due to not having enough apps or developer support. Samsung's developer conference this week focuses on Android, but it's also a way for the company to develop relationships that could carry over to Tizen. One session Tuesday will focus on the operating system.

Still, creating Samsung-specific apps is a tough pitch for the company. Many startups have limited resources to make apps for just iOS and Android, let alone Windows Phone, BlackBerry, or Samsung. If an Android app works just fine on a Samsung device, there may not be enough incentive to build something that works with S Pen or other Samsung features. Samsung has offered funding to developers to create apps, some told CNET, but those companies still have to find the engineers to do the work.

Samsung argues that developers will get access to its huge user base, as well as its global footprint. And their work "can have tremendous upside and exposure" through Samsung, as Gregory Lee, president of Samsung Telecommunications America, put it. Samsung also says it wants to listen and learn how it can better help developers.

It won't be easy, but the developer conference likely won't be the last we hear from Samsung about this push.

 

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