Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG ) move to offload Motorola could lead to a bevy of improved Android devices in the months ahead. Google's decision to exit the handset business follows a report that it has renewed its relationship with Samsung (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF ) , the world's most dominant Android OEM.
With Google-made devices no longer a lingering threat, Samsung could be about to embrace a more stock version of Android -- improving its Galaxy phones significantly and putting further pressure on Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL ) iPhone.
Google and Samsung strike a deal
Just days before Google sold Motorola's handset unit to Lenovo, the search giant signed a broad patent-licensing agreement with Samsung. That deal was apparently just one of many -- according to Re/code, executives at Samsung and Google have been talking extensively, hammering out their differences behind closed doors.
In recent months, a certain rivalry had begun to develop between the two companies -- although they both need each other, reports from The Wall Street Journal and others have characterized their relationship as strained.
Strategically, Google develops Android to get people to use its services -- Google Play, Google Maps, Gmail, among others -- while Samsung gets a free operating system out of the deal. But because Samsung doesn't own the software, it's threatened by rising competition. If someone wants an iPhone, they have no choice but to buy from Apple. In contrast, there are many Android OEMs, and a longtime Samsung customer can easily switch to an HTC or Sony device when it comes time to upgrade.
Samsung's software is terrible
To counteract this effect, Samsung has been slowly putting its own touches on Google's operating system, tinkering with it in such a way as to differentiate its Galaxy devices from its Android rivals. This has included, among other things, a Samsung app store to rival Google Play, Samsung-specific email, messaging and browser apps, and a custom user interface known as TouchWiz.
But to put it bluntly, TouchWiz is utterly terrible. Reviewers have long bemoaned its ugly appearance, confusing mash of duplicate Samsung and Google apps, and, above all, its sluggishness (just search for "touchwiz slow" on Google). Samsung's take on Android seems have reduced its optimization, making it prone to the occasional stutter or crash.
Obviously, this all stands in stark contrast to the experience Apple offers on its iPhones -- one of simplicity and reliability. A half dozen conflicting apps, and the occasional software glitch, isn't the ideal offering if you aim to poach Apple's customers.
Farhad Manjoo, an admitted Apple addict, wrote about his experiences with Android phones, ultimately concluding that the only ones worth using were the few that ran Google's stock version of Android:
I saw, up close, Android's basic problem... Google makes a fine mobile operating system. Some phone manufacturers make attractive, powerful Android handsets. These phones have the potential to be really wonderful machines, even as great as Apple's flagship phone. But then... the phone makers...snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They ruin the phones' potential with unnecessary features and apps that lower the devices' battery life, uglify their home screens, and make everything you want to do extra annoying... . The worst thing about Android phones... the modifications that phone companies make to Android's most basic features, including the dialing app, contacts, email, the calendar, the notification system, and the layout of the home screen.
Offering a better alternative
In short, by aggressively modifying Google's Android, Samsung has been holding its devices back, limiting their appeal. But with Motorola sold and Google and Samsung working more closely together, Samsung's Galaxy phones could be about to improve significantly.
If Samsung dials back its Android tweaks and embraces a more pure version of Android (akin to the one that has earned the Moto X so much praise), its Galaxy phones would offer a much-improved user experience -- a more stable, less confusing handset.
iPhone owners are notoriously loyal to Apple, but Samsung's flagships remain the iPhone's biggest competition. With Google and Samsung seemingly on the same page, Apple could be about to see its greatest competition yet.
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