While Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) was busy last week wooing developers and consumers alike at the Worldwide Developers Conference with substantial updates to its popular iOS and Mac OS operating systems, many seemed to miss the Tizen Developer Conference happening just down the street. Tizen is an open source operating system that lives within the Linux Foundation and is led by a technical steering group consisting of smartphone heavyweight, Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF), chip giant Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), and a number of others. The questions on everybody's minds are whether Samsung will make a real push to bring this to market and, if it does, whether it will be successful.
First things first -- app compatibility
At the end of the day, what makes a mobile device so useful is the richness of the application library available to its users. A smartphone could have a gorgeous chassis, a fast processor, and a great camera, but if its platform lacks the useful apps that competing platforms have, all of that goodness is useless. It seems only natural to ask, then, is what does the app situation look like?
Considering that the very first Tizen smartphone -- the Samsung Galaxy Z -- was just announced a few days ago, the application selection is nowhere close to the more than 1 million applications available on the Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Play store for devices running Google's Android operating system. On the bright side, a number of services claim to be able to convert Android applications to Tizen with minimal effort, which could kick-start the Tizen application ecosystem. The effectiveness of these services -- particularly for more complex, media-rich applications -- remains to be seen, however.
So, right off the bat, Tizen has a limited app selection, one announced smartphone (launching in the third quarter of 2014 in Russia), and lead backers (Samsung and Intel) that both have substantial investments in developing Android. Oh, and apparently Intel didn't even win the applications processor slot for this device. Not exactly a recipe for overnight success.
This is likely an emerging market/low-cost device play
Given that the midrange to high end of the market more or less belongs to Google's Android and Apple's iOS, and given the fairly substantial investments those companies have made in their ecosystems, Tizen is likely a nonstarter in more mature markets and, more generally, at the high end of the smartphone space.
However, for markets in which the feature phone to smartphone transition hasn't really hit in full force yet, and for markets that are very cost sensitive, Tizen still has a chance. This would be predicated on a robust application ecosystem being built up fairly quickly and devices offered at a discount to their Android counterparts to drive that initial install base. This would probably require an aggressive marketing push from the handset vendors that use this operating system, and those same vendors would need to de-emphasize their Android efforts in order to put Tizen-powered devices at the center stage.
Is this likely to happen?
At the high end of the market, Tizen is likely a no-go, and at the low end of the market, all of the Chinese and Taiwanese OEMs and ODMs looking to get in on this smartphone growth will likely use Android. Even low-end devices are getting quite fast and can provide a reasonable experience running just about the full suite of available Android applications.
Even if Samsung could coax developers into bringing most of the Android application suite over to Android (and assuming the various services included in Tizen are comparable to those that Google offers), what benefit will consumers see in picking the Samsung Tizen phone over a Samsung (or other vendor) Android device? Samsung could presumably sell similar hardware running Tizen for cheaper than an Android counterpart if it is really serious, but whether it will do so is an open question.
Even though the Tizen Association boasted record turnout for the Tizen Developer Conference, it's just tough to see this operating system taking off in the traditional mobile markets (although the broader Internet of Things still seems to be fair game). Developers already have their hands full trying to build differentiated experiences on Android and iOS, and seem to be grudgingly bringing key applications to Windows Phone if the financial case can be made for doing so.
Is there room for yet another mobile operating system? Probably not. Will Samsung continue to invest in Tizen and continue to try to reduce its dependence on Android? Probably -- at least for as long as the company's mobile division remains the veritable gravy train that it has been over the last several years. However, when or if margins in this space begin to collapse, the investment in Tizen may be the first to go in a bid to cut costs and improve operating performance.