Samsung's troubled Tizen software ready for prime time on TVs

The Korean electronics giant's software has flopped in phones, but Samsung hopes TVs -- launching at 2015 CES -- will finally make Tizen mainstream.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
5 min read

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Samsung's 2015 smart TVs will run Tizen software, which boasts a simplified user interface, pictured here. Samsung

LAS VEGAS -- Samsung's Tizen operating system may still be a no-show in smartphones, but millions of consumers will soon use the software in their homes -- possibly without even knowing it.

Starting this year, all of Samsung's new smart TVs will run Tizen, the operating system that's been under development for years at the South Korean electronics giant. The software simplifies the company's user interface compared to earlier Samsung smart TV operating systems, and it allows users to more easily connect their TV to nearby Samsung smartphones, tablets and smartwatches. Consumers will also be able to watch live broadcast TV on their mobile devices, anywhere on their home network, even when their TVs are turned off.

By putting Tizen in its TVs, Samsung may be able to do something it's so far failed to accomplish with smartphones and smartwatches -- make Tizen mainstream. The software's rocky road to market underscores the difficulties of creating a new mobile platform -- even for a company as large and influential as Samsung. The company ultimately wants Tizen to be the "OS of everything."

Until now, the only devices that ran Tizen were some of its digital cameras and a few of Samsung's smartwatches, including the latest Gear S watch. Along with TVs, the company is also working on Tizen-powered home appliances and cars. But none of those devices sell in the same volume as Samsung's TVs.

It "might help them penetrate the home in an easier way than through the phone or wearables," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Kantar Worldpanel.

The Tizen-powered TV announcement is part of Samsung's news for the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show taking place in Las Vegas this week. Tizen TVs won't be the only announcement at the company's press conference Monday, but they will play a major role in Samsung's strategy for the year. You can tune into CNET's live blog of the press conference here.

Tizen started as Samsung's attempt to distance itself from Google in smartphones. It was also a way for Samsung to better control the user interface on its devices and make money from advertising and services such as apps. The company started talking about the software in early 2013, with promises to release a phone shortly thereafter.

Two years after its first Tizen promises, no Tizen-powered phones have hit the market, and Samsung's latest plans to release low-end Tizen phones in India by the end of 2014 didn't happen as planned. It's unclear when the first Tizen smartphone will actually be available or who will want to buy it when it does reach the market.

But Samsung has dominated the global TV market for nearly a decade, thanks to its sleek designs and advanced display technology. It outsells rivals such as Vizio, LG, Sony, Panasonic, Sharp and others.

Samsung Tizen operating system for smart TVs (pictures)

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Roughly a third of TVs sold in the US come from Samsung, according to analysts, as do nearly half of all smart TVs. Samsung also sells more smartphones than any other rivals, but its position has been slipping. In the third quarter, the most recent data available, Samsung's share of the world's smartphone market dropped to 24 percent from 32 percent in the same period of the previous year, according to IDC.

It also relies on Google Android OS for its software, which has limited what it can do with its phones.

Smartphones have centered around two main operating systems -- Android and Apple's iOS -- but TV software has been more fragmented. Vendors such as Samsung have tended to use their own homegrown operating systems to power their smart TVs, often shunning Google TV. Most early smart TV operating systems have been criticized as complex, and any smart TV software that's easier to use - as Samsung says about Tizen - would be attractive.

See also:CNET's full coverage of CES 2015

Introducing Tizen in TVs will be easier than releasing the software in phones. Unlike smartphones, consumers typically don't care what operating system runs their TVs, as long as they can watch their favorite shows and access the features they want. Switching to a Tizen-powered smart TV from another set won't be as drastic a change as moving from an Android phone with more than a million apps to a Tizen phone, which lacks popular programs like Facebook and Google Maps.

Still, Samsung's strong suit has never been software, and it's going up against Google, which last year reinvented its much-criticized Google TV software as Android TV. Google started selling its first streaming media device, the Nexus Player, in November, and other Android TVs from Sharp, Sony and others should hit the market this year.

Meanwhile, LG bought the WebOS business from Hewlett-Packard in early 2013 and launched its first TVs running Palm's old mobile operating system last year.

Watch this: Samsung shifts Smart TVs to Tizen

While Tizen-powered smart TVs should help make the OS mainstream, it may still take time. Consumers hold onto their televisions longer than their smartphones, in part because the technology doesn't advance so quickly. Price is also a factor; Samsung's 2014 smart TV lineup started at nearly $300 (which converts to about £196 or AU$370) for a low-end, 24-inch model. Samsung hasn't yet revealed pricing for its new lineup.

Samsung also has no plans to update the software running its older TVs to Tizen, Joe Stinziano, executive vice president of Samsung Electronics America, told CNET. Samsung did such a thing for its smartwatches. Its first wearable, the Galaxy Gear, received an over-the-air update to change the watch from Android to Tizen in mid-2014. But there are a lot more Samsung smart TVs on the market than Galaxy Gears, making it a little more complicated. Stinziano said releasing an update to make its older smart TVs run Tizen won't work.

"It is not possible as far as I know," he said. "We've been discussing that. Right now I don't believe we're going to be able to go back and combine those operating systems."

There's no guarantee that Tizen-based TVs will succeed. But analysts like Milanesi believe they have a better chance than Tizen phones. After all, consumers wanting a Samsung television -- long considered among the highest quality products in the industry -- won't have a choice: All Samsung's 2015 smart TVs will run Tizen.

Updated at 11:30 p.m. PT with comment from Samsung executive about not updating old smart TVs to Tizen.