Two and only two companies make any real money from their smartphone and tablet businesses: Apple and Samsung. Apple, of course, goes its own way. Samsung, on the other hand, is a classic Asian OEM (original equipment maker). It builds anything and everything, using a combination of its own innovations and platforms created by others. But Samsung has been showing increased signs of wanting to be an Apple, not just a big OEM -- and Google has betrayed nervousness about Samsung's increasing independence.
I'm the first to admit that Samsung's actual intentions are unknown. I've seen many other OEMs (not just Asian firms) spend real time and effort to be more than just another maker of PCs, mobile devices, TVs, whatever, only to stop after a while. It'd be easy to argue that -- just like for TVs, stereos, cameras, and PCs -- at the end of the day Android devices are a commodity business where design quality and a handful of cool proprietary apps are the only long-term differentiators a company can have. In other words, Samsung's push to be more than just an Android OEM won't last.
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Samsung going its own way across the whole spectrum
But there are signs that Samsung is serious about becoming an Apple, owning a portfolio of technologies that create a unique ecosystem:
- It is slowly making pen computing a standard technology in its higher-end devices and bundling a few third-party apps that take advantage of it.
- It is slowly bringing a unique multiple-window capability into its higher-end devices and bundling a few third-party apps that take advantage of it.
- In the forthcoming Galaxy S 4, it is bundling its own unique language-translation capability. We should see this technology be added to other high-end Samsung devices over time.
- Samsung has been steadily building a portfolio of products to compete with Apple's iTunes, AirPlay, and Apple TV, including an iPod Touch clone called the Galaxy Player, media-services-enabled Galaxy Tabs, the Samsung Beam device with an embedded pico projector, and the forthcoming Home Sync service for cloud-based streaming of media between devices and to your TV.
- Samsung is merging its Bada OS (sold in emerging markets) into an open source effort called Tizen, based on a series of failed Linux mobile efforts like Maemo and MeeGo. It plans several Tizen devices this year. Maybe Tizen isn't a serious effort to supplant Android, but simply a playpen for Samsung to develop software muscles it never had. I have to assume Samsung would simply have kept Bada if it just wanted a playpen.
- It has been unifying the user interface across its devices and bundled apps, providing a clearer Samsung personality -- one reinforced with UI choices made in Bada OS and the forthcoming Tizen OS, whose leadership it took over from Intel.
- It has developed its own set of security technologies that outshine what Google delivers, approximating what Apple's iOS policies deliver and adding a dual-environment capability via its Knox technology (so far, available only for high-end devices).
- Samsung is working with Mozilla on a new browser for Android and other platforms, a shot across the bow of Google's two standard Android browsers (Android Browser and Chrome), one of which is the standard browser in every Android device so far.
- It has largely dropped its investment in Microsoft's Windows Phone, with little marketing of its sole Windows Phone 8 device, the Ativ.
- It barely mentioned Google or Android in its theatrical Galaxy S 4 unveiling.
At the same time, Google has been trying to reassert stewardship over Android. Last spring, it revealed Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean," with a UI focused on selling Google's media services (its Google Play suite of iTunes clones), tightened the rules over forked versions of Android, and even tried to launch an Apple TV-like device that flopped spectacularly. Most of Google's moves seemed intent on fighting back against Amazon.com's forked Android (which doesn't use Google Play) in its Kindle Fire, but Samsung is also targeting the same consumer entertainment market while beefing up its business-security portfolio.
In the tech rumor mill, bloggers regularly cite Google concerns over Samsung's essential takeover of the Android market's profits and the UI forking that Samsung has been pushing. Yes, HTC was the first to reskin Android with 2009's Droid Eris, and Motorola did the same with its unliked MotoBlur. However, Samsung is the only Android maker whose separate UI path has resonated with buyers and threatens to fork the Android experience from Google's "pure" Android UI, which it periodically reasserts.