Trouble's brewing in Android land

Indications of desperation at Samsung, chaos at HTC, and reduced focus at Google suggest Android faces rough sailing

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On the other hand, Samsung appears to be losing steam and sullying its reputation with poor products. The Galaxy S 4 seems to be the turning point; it's not bad, but it brought a lower level of quality. The Galaxy Gear smart watch by all accounts is just a mediocre product, not even as good as two-year-old smart watch prototypes such as the Wimm One (now owned by Google, so stay tuned!). My best guess: Samsung is reacting to rumors of what Apple might be doing and releasing products -- unfinished or not -- to be first, damn the consequences of selling crap. I wouldn't be surprised if Apple is intentionally leaking such rumors to provoke Samsung to keep being stupid.

But more is going on at Samsung than misguided product development. I was appalled to learn that Samsung has apparently stolen secret Apple-Nokia patent licensing details given to its outside lawyers in one of the many court cases involving Samsung and Apple. Worse, according to a deposition filed by Nokia to the court involved, Samsung executive Seungho Ahn acknowledged the receipt and claimed "all information leaks." If true, that is criminal behavior -- literally -- not merely unethical.

There are other reasons to distrust Samsung's ethical compass. As tech site AnandTech demonstrated, Samsung designs its hardware to perform better when industry-standard benchmarks are running, creating a falsely high score that users don't actually experience in real-world usage. (For the record, Samsung denies the allegations, but AnandTech is highly credible and has no reason to lie.) There's a long history of such cheating in the PC industry, and AnandTech demonstrated that HTC, LG, and other Android makers use similar tricks in their devices. As our mothers told us, just because others are dishonest doesn't mean you should be too.

Certainly, Samsung can afford to take the high road. But it chooses not to. By contrast, both Apple and Motorola Mobility don't cheat, according to AnandTech. They're also not so coincidentally the only two mobile device makers to provide honest sales numbers, of devices actually purchased by users, not stuffed into sales channels.

Then there's Samsung's abuse of the patent system, specifically the notion of FRAND patents, which are patents incorporated into industry standards on the condition they're licensed under fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory terms to all companies that want a license. But Samsung tried to charge Apple more money to use certain FRAND patents than it charged other companies, in an apparent attempt to put Apple's iPhones at a disadvantage to Samsung's Android devices. Apple balked, launching what has become a series of lawsuits to end the practice, even getting Microsoft's help, since Samsung's FRAND abuse threatens the entire notion of using patents in technical standards. This battle has been raging in the courts for years, and most courts are finding that Samsung has indeed abused the FRAND principle. It's an unethical use of FRAND, and I'm glad the courts recognize it for what it is.

All of those incidents reminded me of another ethically challenged moment at Samsung: Two years ago, Samsung flew some clearly naive Asian bloggers to Germany, ostensibly to cover IFA, a big German tech trade show. Once the bloggers were in Germany, they were told they had to work the booth wearing Samsung attire if they wanted their tickets home -- the bloggers felt duped and ended up being sent home early, missing the show they went to cover. Samsung said the incident was based on a misunderstanding.

I thought little of that Germany incident at the time, but looking at Samsung's pattern of behavior since, I'm troubled by what appears to be an unethical culture. Where there's repeated smoke, there's fire. I'm inclined to avoid the fire, meaning avoid Samsung products.

None of this is good for Android given Samsung's preeminent position.

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