Launching Tizen on Samsung's newest smartwatch could help the company avoid the app and carrier problems that often plague new operating systems.
The Korean electronics giant has been working on Tizen-based smartphones for months, but the first global product to use the open-source Linux operating system won't be a phone. Rather, Samsung on Monday will unveil a new version of its Gear smartwatch that runs the company's Tizen software rather than Google's Android operating system. Introducing Tizen to the masses via Gear may be one of the smartest moves Samsung could make. The reason? Apps.
CNET's full coverage of Mobile World CongressSmartphones and tablets require app stores with millions of offerings to gain traction with users. Just look at how the lack of apps has hurt Windows Phone and Blackberry and how much money and time they've spent to boost their stores. Samsung also has offered millions of dollars in prizes and funding to get developers to make apps for Tizen. The situation is different for smartwatches and other wearables -- at least during these early days. Essentially all wearables on the market have to be tethered to a smartphone to truly work. That means they don't need to do as many things on their own aside from notifications or fitness tracking. And the small screens and overall limitations mean most Android apps wouldn't work on them anyway.
In the case of the first Gear, Samsung has closely controlled what apps could be on the device, rather than opening the gadget up to the entire Google Play universe of apps. Before launching the device, Samsung sought out app developers and worked with them to create software that would work well with the smartwatch. While it has since opened up its mobile software development kits to developers, Samsung has kept the Gear app store invite-only.
"We need to make sure we're ready to go big," Curtis Sasaki, senior vice president of Samsung's Media Solution Center Americas business, told CNET at the company's developer conference in late October.
Continuing with such an invite-only model for the Tizen-based Gear could help the operating system gain more traction, particularly compared with how a Tizen-based smartphone would do. Samsung wouldn't have to worry about having millions of apps that run on Tizen. It would just need to make sure it had a curated batch of apps that worked really well with its smartwatch, and that's exactly what Samsung is doing, according to people briefed on the Gear 2.
While the developers making apps for Gear 2 sure can tell the difference between the software on the old and new devices, consumers likely won't. Samsung's version of Android on the first Gear barely looked like Android at all.In addition, with something like Gear, Samsung doesn't need the same carrier support that a smartphone requires. Many wireless companies -- such as Sprint, Orange, and Vodafone -- are part of the Tizen Association, but there also have been some high-profile setbacks. Sprint joined the Tizen Association, quit, but later rejoined. Other carriers, such as Telefonica, have quit and never returned, and even more have expressed concerns about Tizen's progress.
NTT DoCoMo, Japan's largest carrier and an early proponent of Tizen, in January scuttled its immediate plans to launch a Tizen-based smartphone. The company, which said it continues to support Tizen, made the move because of the lack of consumer demand beyond Android or Apple's iOS.
"We [had] been aiming to launch the first Tizen handset by end of March 2014," NTT DoCoMo told CNET in a statement. "However, due to changes in the current Japanese mobile market, where the growth of smartphone sales is leveling out, we have decided to postpone the release."
Tizen's future also came into question amid reports that Samsung and Google had eased some of their recent tension. Samsung reportedly agreed to pare back the bloatware on its Android devices while Google agreed to focus its attention on mobile software, not hardware. The two signed a cross-licensing agreement, and Google sold its Motorola Mobility business to Lenovo a few days later.
Even if the two companies reached some sort of agreement about software, Samsung clearly isn't giving up on Tizen. Samsung is the undisputed king of Android smartphones, but it still needs an alternative that gives it more control over its own future. The company knows that its future growth increasingly will be tied to software and services, and it has devoted significant resources to honing its skills in those areas.
Tizen's entree to the market has been anticipated for a couple of years. Most recently, Samsung planned to launch a high-end, Tizen-powered handset by September 2013, but it delayed the release by several months to the fourth quarter. The delay was partly because it wanted to improve the hardware and partly because it didn't have the apps necessary to launch a new ecosystem. Samsung delayed the phone a second time, saying in November that it would introduce a Tizen smartphone in February.
At least one Tizen phone could make an appearance this coming week at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, according to people briefed on the matter. However, it's unclear when or where that particular device will be sold.
Samsung also has said it plans to push Tizen into a broad range of devices, including TVs and home appliances. Similar to wearables, the size of the app store for those products doesn't really matter.
"With Samsung, just bringing [Tizen to] phones is not enough," said Andrew Till, the head of mobile at Symphony Teleca, a company that partners with Samsung and helps companies make apps. "They have to position Tizen as a cross-industry offering."
For now, Samsung's greatest hope for Tizen -- and the way to get the operating system into consumers' homes, almost without them even knowing it -- will come through Gear. Here's hoping more people buy the smartwatch this time around.