When I first heard the rumours that Samsung might ditch its proprietary Tizen OS for wearables in favour of Google’s Wear OS, I was flummoxed. Tizen is snappy and free of the many problems plaguing Google’s wearables softeware. In fact, I’d say Tizen has played a large role in making Samsung’s smartwatches the best option for Android users — even if it isn’t perfect.
The most logical explanation was that Wear OS offered a better third-party app ecosystem. However, even that didn’t make complete sense given how neglected the platform is and that Tizen OS has been in Samsung watches for seven years now. But now, a report from the Korean news outlet Money Today makes things crystal clear: KakaoTalk refuses to make a dedicated Tizen app.
If you’ve spent a significant time in Korea or are familiar with the Korean or Korean-American community, you know how big KakaoTalk is. Here in the west, the most accurate comparison would probably be WhatsApp, but if WhatsApp was also a pseudo-social network that absolutely everyone in your life used. I mean your grandma, your parents, your significant other, your friends, your coworkers, the CEO of your company, your third-grade teacher — absolutely everyone. According to Statista, the app has more than 50 million monthly active users, of which 46 million are located in South Korea.
For context, the population of South Korea in 2020 was about 51 million. And like WeChat in China, KakaoTalk has expanded beyond just being a free chat and voice calling app. It hosts mobile games, an online bank, online shopping, a taxi service, and gift exchanges. And while it’s not officially designed to be, KakaoTalk has also morphed into a pseudo dating app. It’s so ubiquitous, “Ka-talk”, an abbreviated name for the app, has become part of the language. Listen, even my 72-year-old, technology-hating mother who has no idea how to use her smartphone will say things like, “I’ll Ka-talk you later.”
According to the MT report, KakaoTalk refuses to develop a Tizen app for Samsung’s Galaxy Watch because “there is no reason to,” as the market is small and “development is rather difficult.” The best KakaoTalk integration you can get on a Samsung watch is a notification when you receive a KakaoTalk message and the ability to reply with a smart response from the notification screen. The Apple Watch already has a KakaoTalk app where you can view all your chats, send special KakaoTalk-specific emojis, send voice messages, and also reply using smart responses. There’s also already an Android version of the app, so extending that to Wear OS would be less of a headache.
But is this really a compelling reason for Samsung to throw Tizen under the bus? Yes. I don’t know how to accurately convey the power of the extreme national pride Koreans have for home-grown tech, brands, and talent. The best I can say is from the moment you land in Seoul’s Incheon Airport, everything is Samsung. My relatives in Korea are Samsung phone evangelists, and many of them are perplexed why some of us in the American branch of our family use iPhones at all. Do we have no pride? I’m not joking when I say it’s a legitimate point of contention that’s made for awkward moments at family reunions.
When Gangnam Style and K-pop landed in America, it was worn as a badge of honour that even the Americans finally recognised Korea’s cultural capital. Most of my conversations with my mum start with a factoid about some Korean accomplishment, such as, “Do you know that Incheon Airport is rated the best airport in the world?” Do not even get me started on when Parasite won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Samsung looms large within the Korean consciousness and so does KakaoTalk. Even though the majority of smartwatch users in Korea use a Samsung, lacking a dedicated KakaoTalk app is a colossal omission for Korea’s most powerful company in its home market.
Broadly speaking, Samsung likely wants more apps to work with its smartwatches and hasn’t made much headway. It’s the one thing that’s stopping it from being the best smartwatch for all Android users outright. Right now its main victory on the third-party app front is that Spotify’s Tizen app is way better than its Wear OS app. Switching back to Wear OS is most definitely a long-term strategic move that may have always been inevitable. But if KakaoTalk was willing to make a dedicated Tizen app, I’m not sure Samsung would throw in the towel just yet.