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Samsung launches first Tizen-powered smartphone in India

After a two-year wait, Samsung takes the wraps off a handset significantly scaled back from original ambitions.

Tizen running on a Samsung Z, an as-yet unreleased smartphone. CNET

Samsung launched a long-awaited smartphone in India on Wednesday that is powered by Tizen, the electronics giant's own operating system.

Sporting a 1.2GHz dual-core processor, 3.1-megapixel rear-facing camera, and 1,500mAh battery, the Samsung Z1 resembles many other entry-level smartphones already on the market. But what differentiates this handset is that it's the first smartphone launch to feature Tizen, Samsung's homegrown but oft-delayed operating system.

Originally pitched nearly two years ago as an alternative to the stranglehold that Google's Android and Apple's iOS has on the smartphone industry, Tizen's rocky road to market underscores the difficulties of creating a new mobile platform.

Samsung and Intel spearheaded Tizen's development, and Japan's NTT Docomo committed to using the OS on high-end smartphones. The operating system, which is open-source but has Android elements that the company licenses from Google, promised mobile carriers a chance to embrace an open operating system that they could customize to better directly serve their subscribers.

Samsung initially planned to launch a high-end, Tizen-powered handset by September 2013, but it repeatedly delayed the release by several months. Development faced some hiccups, such as Japanese carrier partner NTT DoCoMo calling off its plans to offer a Tizen phone, and Samsung got relatively quiet about the OS, raising questions about whether the company would continue to push the operating system.

The South Korean electronics giant has since changed its OS market strategy, forgoing high-end smartphones for the low- and midrange markets. While Samsung has had to scale down its mobile ambitions for Tizen, the OS could still help Samsung defend itself against lower end competition from Chinese and Indian smartphone makers. The Samsung Z1 sports an unsubsidized price of 5,700 Indian rupees (converting to about $90, AU$110, £60) for the phones, pitting it squarely against phones in Google's low-cost Android One program.

Samsung's mobile division, which typically accounts for two-thirds of the company's revenue, has been hit hard by saturation in the high-end market and intensifying pressure on the low end. Profits in Samsung's IT & mobile communications divisions tumbled 74 percent in the third quarter year-over-year, in part due to a lower average selling price for smartphones. The company is also facing new competition from low-cost phone vendors such as China's Xiaomi and India's Micromax, which offer cheap devices with high-end specs in their local markets.

Samsung is positioning the Z1 as an entertainment device as much as a communication device.

"The smartphone market in India is rapidly evolving, with many consumers using their device as their screen of choice for content including videos, television programs and video games, as well as a range of apps," Hyun Chil Hong, CEO of Samsung India Electronics, said in a statement. "We have customized the Samsung Z1 to meet these unique, entertainment-focused needs of local Indian consumers for a personal and reliable mobile experience."

Z1 owners will have access to more than 270,000 songs that can be streamed or downloaded, as well as more than 80 live TV channels through the digital entertainment store Club Samsung. A free entertainment package called "Joy Box" will give Z1 users access to music, movies, and TV programs.