Samsung announced three wearable devices at Mobile World Congress this week, and all of them are different from their original namesake in one critical way – none of them are running Android. Instead, the Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo, and Gear Fit are all running Tizen, a Linux-based OS that has yet to gain any real traction.
Samsung’s decision to put Tizen on the Gear line was deliberate, but probably not for the reasons you think. There’s a lot of noise out there suggesting that Samsung is looking to break ties with Google and take their mobile experience in a new direction. The big patent agreement they just signed with Google is proof enough that those two companies will be bedfellows for quite a while, but more importantly it would be disastrous for both companies if Samsung phones and tablets stopped running Android.
Instead, Samsung is going to approach its wearables from a new perspective and cultivate their own user experience.
Android on a smartwatch just doesn’t make sense right now. Even if you use one of the more recent versions of Android that are less resource intensive, there’s no point. You’d have to craft a UI specifically for the experience, and you’d have to supply your own apps. Google won’t approve a smartwatch for their mobile services until they have guidelines out for those kinds of devices.
We’ve played this game before with tablets, where Google told partners not to release large form factor devices until they had guidelines for tablets. Samsung and HTC worked their way around it in the early days by releasing them as giant phones internationally, but the same can’t be done for smartwatches. While apps can scale up and look okay in most cases, they can’t scale down to your wrist and still be functional.
Where are the Google Mobile Services guidelines for wearables? There’s a good chance that they are hiding on the other side of a watch that Google itself will release at the company’s next developer conference. Google would need to offer GMS guidelines and an SDK for developers to be able to scale their apps down to wrist size in order for the Google Play Store to make any sense at all on our wrists, and that’s not happening anytime soon.
So if you’re a hardware manufacturer who knows they have to build their own apps and carve out their own UI anyway, and you have access to your own operating system that is already optimised for low performance devices, why would you bother with Android?
Samsung has an opportunity to carve out a niche for Tizen by creating companion devices for Android, and at the same time Samsung can continue to foster its own development ecosystem. Samsung launched its first developer conference last year to focus on Samsung apps, which is to say apps that live in the Samsung app store and are only available on Samsung devices. They can encourage cross platform apps, where developers make apps that have Gear companions, and create a unique experience for their hardware combination.
Tools already exist from Intel and Samsung to make apps that run on both platforms, as well as convert APKs to TPKs so apps can be installed on Tizen devices. With this gentle nudge, Samsung can encourage developers to become comfortable with developing for Tizen and not have to worry about making a huge abrupt switch from one platform to another.
It’s premature to assume Samsung has an end game in mind here, but it could certainly be conceived that there will come a day when Samsung walks away from Android, although that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Samsung has created a value add that no one else is offering right now, with an experience that will encourage more people to invest in the Samsung experience. As a result, the new Gear trio will be faster, sleeker, and will likely be more capable than Google’s watch when it finally drops.
Competition in the wearable ecosystem is going to explode this year, and Samsung’s plan is to offer something unique and throw money at it until there’s one on every wrist. It’s hard to argue with that strategy since it worked so well for the company with Android.
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