Who has more to fear from Samsung's independence: Apple or Google?

The top Android device maker is showing increasing signs of autonomy, which could affect other mobile players

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Where Samsung still depends on Android
Samsung's efforts to pull away from standard Android is apparent in its hardware, UI, security capabilities, and enhanced applications. But it's still Android underneath, and the apps still come from the Google Play app store. Those are the biggest dependencies Samsung has on Android, and they are indeed big. However, Tizen could replace Android if all goes well, especially given the UI similiarities Samsung has put into it, no doubt in anticipation of a possible future migration.

Replacing Google Play would not be easy -- developers would have to be convinced to develop new apps and port existing ones to Tizen. As Microsoft and BlackBerry have discovered, that's a very hard sell. Plus, users would lose their app investments, which is a major deterrent for some.

What Samsung would have going for it, though, is market share. Samsung is by far the leading Android devicemaker. If it decided to shift to Tizen and abandon Android in the process (no doubt in stages), it would have a huge potential market for developers, if Samsung's customers indeed made the switch. Samsung's scale could make all the difference to both customers and users. Samsung could also pull another page from Apple's playbook and make (or commission) the key apps itself so the critical apps are there from Day 1.

Furthermore, Amazon's Kindle Fire shows very well that if you take a media-centric approach, as Samsung seems to be moving toward, you don't need Google Play to have a successful business. Of course, Amazon had its media strategy in place before launching the Kindle Fire, and Samsung would also need to nail down a strategy before any Tizen migration.

The transition from Android to Tizen, putting Samsung in its own ecosystem, would be a lot of effort. But Samsung is making the money that would fund that transition, and the company's leadership sincerely seems to want to stop being just another Asian OEM.

I believe it's no accident that Samsung is doing more than copying the key product pieces of the Apple ecosystem. And I believe it is no accident that Samsung is focusing on its name and the Galaxy brand rather than the Google name and Android brand. Nor that it is acting like Apple in terms of creating a fanboy community, egged on by big productions like the recent Galaxy S 4 unveiling. Apple's customers are passionate about iOS and its related services, and few leave the Apple cult once in. Android users are much less passionate: On average, they use the devices less and often don't view Android as more than a means to an end -- except, that is, for Samsung Galaxy users, who increasingly rival iOS users in passion and usage.

Does Android need Samsung?
What's unclear is the effect of a Samsung departure on Android itself. Google is not looking to be an Apple, at least not consistently. It makes little money from Android, after all. Google is in the data-mining business, which means it needs Google Search, Google Maps, Google+, YouTube, Google Navigator, Google Now, and other such services everywhere. There's a reason why Google is so aggressive in delivering iOS apps.

Google's Chrome OS effort is also closer to Google's DNA than Android is. Chrome OS, like Google Docs and Gmail, is a browser portal for mining user data, requiring less technical sophistication and more easily adapted to devices than a "true" OS like Android is. (Don't forget that while Google bought Android, it developed Chrome OS and the other technologies I've mentioned.)

Before Android, Google was very close to Apple -- it favored in iOS, in fact. Android does provide a useful testbed for Google apps, both because Apple guards user privacy much more than Google does, leading to potential business conflicts, and because Apple culturally is not as willing as Google to throw things against the wall to see what sticks. Android's success destroyed the Apple-Google friendship, replacing it with a never-ending patent war for which, ironically, Samsung is footing most of the bill.

Should Samsung go its own way, Android would lose perhaps half its market share over time -- assuming Samsung users stuck with Samsung and didn't get a competitor's Android device on their next device refresh. That's the big bet. But assume users stick with Samsung. Is Android hurt?

I think not. Google will lose Google Play revenue, but that's not where the real money is. Google would no doubt port its services to Tizen quickly if that market was big enough, mining users there as it does everywhere. HTC and perhaps Google's Motorola Mobility unit might get some market share pickup from those users who don't transition with Samsung.

Android's dominant market share today gives Google bragging rights -- but not much else. Its real business is elsewhere. Losing Samsung would have little effect on Google and may actually help Google regain leadership over Android, for whatever value it sees in having that platform.

This article, "Who has more to fear from Samsung's independence: Apple or Google?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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