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With Galaxy S4, Samsung prepares for life after Android

Samsung had a lot to talk about with the launch of its newest flagship phone, but Google and Android weren't exactly a priority.

The Galaxy S4 launch at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung Electronics' theatrical launch of the Samsung Galaxy S4 was just the stage rehearsal for its eventual split from Google and Android.

During the hour-long production -- and it was more of an over-the-top Broadway show than an actual product launch -- neither Samsung's executives or the troupe of actors once mentioned Google or Android.

It wasn't until the specifications were displayed on the large screens flanking the stage after the event concluded that attendees found out that the Galaxy S4 would run on Android 4.2.2, the latest version of the operating system, also known as Jelly Bean.

Samsung, meanwhile, spent the majority of its time talking about the raft of services found on the Galaxy S4 -- many of them, accordingly, slapped with an "S" in front of them (S-Translator, S-Drive) so there's no mistaking the Samsung name. Some of those features, including the translator and navigation function, are already built into Android, but Samsung argues that it offers a superior experience that's more fully integrated into the device.

This is all a not-so-subtle attempt by Samsung to distance itself from Google and Android. While Samsung may not actually abandon Android, the company is setting the groundwork to ensure that its own name -- as well as the Galaxy brand -- takes the spotlight. In effect, it is leaving the Android name behind if Android remains the underlying operating system powering a vast majority of its devices.

"To us, the most interesting aspect of the S4 is that it is embedded with myriad Samsung-built software and services rather than utilizing the Google-branded services that most Android vendors use," said Tavis McCourt, an analyst at Raymond James. "Could a Samsung-branded app store be too far behind?"

The move comes amid what many believes is increasing friction between the two most powerful players in the wireless industry, with Samsung the world's largest handset manufacturer and Google the supplier of the world's most popular mobile operating system.

Samsung has a bunch of fitness-related accessories under a category it calls -- what else? -- S Health. Sarah Tew/CNET

Despite public comments affirming support and respect for each other, there have been indications of cracks in their relationship. Andy Rubin, who recently stepped down as the head of Android, privately called Samsung a growing threat, according to the Wall Street Journal. Google has maintained that it acts as a neutral party when dealing with the different Android vendors.

The Galaxy S4 launch further underscored the loosening ties between the two companies, and by Samsung's own admission, the intent was to focus on Samsung's own broad suite of services for the device.

"We wanted to talk about the Samsung experience," Ryan Bidan, director of marketing for Samsung Telecommunications America and the main speaker during the launch festivities, told CNET on sidelines of the launch. "While Android is important, in the context of this conversation, we didn't feel it was relevant."

Indeed, Samsung is attempting to steer the conversation away from Android and toward its own brand.

"(Samsung) is attempting to replicate many of the services that iPhone users enjoy, and seemingly disassociating itself with Google's services," McCourt said in a research note.

Samsung has shown a willingness to aggressively cement its brand. The company reportedly spent $11 billion on marketing around the world last year. In the U.S. alone, its marketing budget in 2012 was more than quadruple the budget of HTC, BlackBerry, and Nokia combined, according to Kantar Media.

The company is likely hoping that its aggressiveness will pay off in consumers coveting Samsung smartphones and tablets, as opposed to Android devices. That, in turn, will shift the conversation further away from whether the Galaxy S4 has the latest version of Android (which it may if Key Lime Pie comes out in May) and toward the Samsung services that are available.

Tizen master
That would make things a whole lot easier if Samsung were to eventually make the shift to a mobile operating system that it has more control over, such as Tizen.

Tizen is a rival open platform cobbled together from various failed operating systems, including Nokia's scrapped MeeGo and the Linux Foundation's LiMo initiative, and is being shepherded to market by Samsung and Intel. Like the Frankenstein's monster of operating systems, the backers hope they finally have it right this time.

The Tizen OS running on a Samsung prototype phone at Mobile World Congress. Luke Westaway/CNET

The first Tizen phones will appear later this year, and carriers such as Japan's NTT Docomo and France's Orange have committed to selling the devices. In the U.S., Sprint Nextel is part of the trade group supporting Tizen, but has yet to commit to selling the phone.

Samsung, meanwhile, is putting a lot of weight behind the phone, with one executive putting it in the same stratosphere as the Galaxy S4 and the next Galaxy Note as flagship devices for the year. NTT Docomo and Orange have already said they consider Tizen to be a platform for higher end devices.

Samsung has yet to prove it can be a software company, despite shifting its focus to that area last year and hiring tons of software engineers. But with Tizen, the company has a burgeoning operating system with growing support from carriers and other vendors. When paired with Samsung's marketing heft, that makes for a powerful combination.

One that could spell a curtain call for what has been the dynamic duo of Samsung and Google.

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