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Tizen chairman, ever the optimist, says smartphone will hit market in 2014

The operating system was notably without a phone even as Firefox paraded a number of new products. The Tizen Association chairman tells CNET he is taking a cautious approach.

A Samsung test unit running Tizen. This isn't a product that's headed to the market.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

BARCELONA, Spain -- Tizen Association Chairman Ryoichi Roy Sugimara is very protective of his "baby."

That baby, of course, is the upstart operating system Tizen and, by extension, any device running on the platform.

In explaining the continued delay of a smartphone running on Tizen, Sugimara said the association and its carrier partners are carefully looking at the best market for a launch. Sugimara told CNET that a phone will indeed hit the market some time this year, although he declined to get more specific.

"You'll see a real commercial launch in some markets," he said in an interview following the Tizen Association's Mobile World Congress event here on Sunday.

But looking at the event, a skeptic would have to question the prospects of this operating system. On Sunday, Tizen talked up the 15 partners it had signed up to the group, as well as additional partners designed to help speed up the adoption of apps. But the event was a bit anticlimactic for anyone looking for something solid to hold. Not even on display was Samsung's Gear 2 and Gear Neo smartwatches, the only mainstream products -- and a niche one at that -- to run on Tizen.

CNET's full coverage of Mobile World Congress

Just two floors down in the same hotel, Mozilla held a far larger, and more impressive, event with a number of new Firefox phones. Among the two fledgling platforms, it was clear which one had the edge.

Sugimara pointed to a Tizen-powered phone that is a test unit from Samsung, as well as an R&D unit from ZTE, each found in their respective booths on the show floor, as the best indication of Tizen's future in phones. But the phone was supposed to show up some time last year and was delayed multiple times. At one point, insiders pointed to Mobile World Congress as a potential platform to launch a phone, but such a device failed to show up.

The group is clearly taking a cautious approach with the launch of real Tizen products. Sugimara said he wanted to find a market where competition isn't as intense. While Sugimara serves as chairman of the association, he's also a director of product development at Japanese carrier NTT Docomo.

It was NTT Docomo that was supposed to be one of the first carriers to offer a Tizen phone but ended up canceling the plans because it didn't believe the market could support more than two operating systems.

The Tizen Association welcomes industry analysts and media to its Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona. Roger Cheng/CNET

It was when he was asked about NTT Docomo withdrawing plans to sell the Tizen phone that Sugimura compared Tizen to a baby that needed protection.

"Why would I throw my baby in such a difficult market?" he said.

Instead, he is looking at markets where Apple's iOS and Google's Android aren't so dominant and where there is a more level playing field. That suggests Tizen is looking at the emerging markets and regions that would be interested in a lower end, but still powerful, smartphone. While he said emerging markets represented a big opportunity, he didn't completely rule out other more mature markets.

One priority for Sugimara is to work to strengthen his relationship with both the vendors and carriers in China. Given the carriers' move to more advanced wireless networks, there was an opportunity for Tizen to take advantage of that shift as consumers change out their phones.

An app running on a Tizen reference design unit. Stephen Shankland/CNET

One of the new partners that have signed on with Tizen is ZTE. Sugimara is looking to get more Chinese vendors on board, which will help to create more competitive mid-tier smartphones.

One of the challenges Tizen faces is getting vendors to sign up for an operating system that is so heavily influenced by Samsung, which alongside Intel are core shepherds for the platform.

The architects of Tizen have long envisioned the platform running on all kinds of devices, but right now are focused on smartphones and automotive infotainment systems, only today announcing that it was expanding to wearables and TVs as well. The aspirations are higher, but Sugimara said he is trying to control expectations for Tizen.

"In order to get into real-world devices, we need a step-by-step approach," he said.