The Galaxy S III has turned out to be a raging success for Samsung, selling 10 million units worldwide in mere weeks. It might just be another phone, but the Galaxy S III introduces a bigger challenge that will affect Android phone manufacturers, Google's Android platform, and you and me as end users. It could see users end up with a nerfed version of Jelly Bean, or even Samsung ditching Android altogether in favour of its own platform.
There are currently something like 39 original equipment manufacturers (OEM) making millions of Android devices, and standing out from the crowd is usually a matter of customising the look with skins. But the Galaxy S III confirmed that the Korean hardware giant is no longer content with just having TouchWiz to differentiate its products — it came complete with its own version of Siri and context-specific abilities like Smart Stay, Smart Alert and Direct Call. Last year, it launched its cross-platform chatON service, and just last week it launched its S Health app. And you can bet there's a lot more to come, because Samsung is getting serious about software.
It looks like some of these software features will overlap with parts of Jelly Bean, which the Galaxy S III will get at some point. S Voice and S Beam are essentially the same thing as Google Now and Android Beam. Jelly Bean's voice search and Google Now looks promising, but it serves the same purpose as Samsung's S Voice feature. Meanwhile, Android Beam in Jelly Bean has added the ability to transfer photos and videos, just like S Beam. Android Beam is slower as it uses Bluetooth to do the transfer, but it can be used on any NFC-enabled Android device. S Beam uses Wi-Fi Direct for faster transfers, but it can only be used between Galaxy S III devices. These minor differences don't change the fact that they both achieve the same task at the end.
So how will Samsung integrate Jelly Bean into Galaxy S III devices? As we reported back in February, there's a time-consuming production line behind Android updates. Every Android OEM, including Samsung, modifies software updates from Google to ensure that it works smoothly with its hardware, custom skins and preloaded apps. The question is how will Samsung modify Jelly Bean so that similar features don't clash and negatively impact the user experience? It wouldn't really make sense to have both Android Beam and S Beam taking up precious space when they virtually do the same thing. Google Now offers something a little different to S Voice, but at the end of the day they're both Siri-like voice assistants. If Samsung had to make a decision, no one would blame it for favouring its own software.
But Samsung can't afford to upset users with a move like that — brand loyalty is a rare thing in an overcrowded market with high turnover rates. It's bad enough that users are left waiting for months to receive Android updates, so there's no way users would tolerate Samsung telling us which bits of Jelly Bean they can and can't have. And most users, given the choice, would choose the "pure" Android experience over Samsung's solution.
The case for a proprietary platform
Something's gotta give. Samsung is pushing harder than ever to integrate software with its hardware in order to defend its position as the world's top smartphone maker against Apple, who is its only real competitor from a profitability stance. Now that Samsung has earned a reputation with users, could it be getting ready to ditch Android? Although Samsung publicly supported Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility in August last year, Samsung's chairman, Lee Kun-Hee, reportedly called a company meeting and stressed over the shift in power from hardware to software. And in a company speech on June 18, Samsung's new CEO, Kwon Oh-Hyun, said that "absolute lead" in the market depended on the software side of the business. Kwon said:
Our company is at an inflection point in our bid to be a genuine global number one... complacency will put us on the same path as the countless other companies that have faded into the mist.
Kwon's speech raised speculation once more that Samsung might be preparing to move its devices over to a proprietary platform. It already has one in the form of Bada, which we don't hear a lot about since it's currently limited to the mid-range Wave series of smartphones. But recent activity suggests that Samsung has bigger plans for the fledgling OS. It recently announced that Bada would merge with the Linux-based Tizen OS, but it's not clear yet what they're hoping to achieve. Samsung is also said to be considering an open-source licence for Bada to attract developers and pump up its app store, Samsung Apps. It's even handing out $100,000 cash prizes to Bada developers for the first 10 apps that clock up 100,000 downloads.
By dropping Android and moving to its own platform, Samsung gains what Apple had from the beginning — total control of the hardware and the software, end to end. The extraordinary popularity of the iPhone gave Apple the sort of clout no one else could dream of demanding. Apple controls software updates, Apple controls when users get them, and Apple refused to let carriers install bloatware. And if carriers didn't want to play the game Apple's way, they were simply told to go away. If Samsung, HTC or any of the others demanded the same thing, the carriers would laugh in their faces and take the next Android device in line.
Now that Google owns Motorola Mobility, Samsung and Google should be considered competitors for all intents and purposes. It could explain why Google broke its relationship with Samsung for its Nexus line of devices and appointed Asus to make its Nexus 7 tablet. Even if Google said it would keep Android open (it's a condition of the merger that it remains open for at least five years), it has every right to change its mind and lock down the platform later on. And as if Google wouldn't give Motorola — now one of its own — some sort of advantage. Early access to Android builds, faster updates or some other exclusive arrangement would surely be expected as part of the deal for Motorola.
This is all just speculation; it's possible that Samsung values Android too much to ditch it completely. The LTE version of the Galaxy S III reportedly received a last-minute bump in RAM to ensure that it would run on Jelly Bean, so that alone shows its commitment to Android. Samsung is certainly keeping us distracted; in the last 24 hours alone the company launched a music app in the UK, as well as the Galaxy Chat smartphone with QWERTY keyboard and Ice Cream Sandwich. But Samsung still has to figure out what to do about the Jelly Bean features that double up with its own software features.
What will Samsung do? What should Samsung do? The company has been diligent about Android updates lately, so we shouldn't have too long to wait.