Samsung's Android Escape Plan, and What it Means for You

By Eric Limer on at

On the surface, there's not a whole lot that's new about Samsung's Galaxy Gear 2. It's very much take two of a product that wasn't that great on the first go-round. But underneath, the Gear 2 isn't just another gadget; it's a defiant shot across Google's bow; a trial run where Samsung can practice seceding from the world of Android.

If you glance at the device, the Gear 2's switch from Android to Tizen seems almost like a footnote. Nothing about the interface, the functionality, the overall experience, is being turned upside down. Maybe you get some extra battery life, and maybe a few of the Gear's small suite of apps will get lost in the shuffle, but on the whole a Tizen-based Gear seems just as (un)appealing as any Android version was. Plenty of other smartwatches get by fine with their own operating systems. The Gear hardly had any business running Android in the first place.

Samsung's not-so-secret weapon

But this behind-the-scenes transition isn't about building a better smartwatch. At least not entirely. It's a dress rehearsal for a much larger move, a move where Samsung does the same thing with its phones. It's important not to underestimate how big of a coup that would be. Samsung shipped more phones than Apple, LG, HTC, and Nokia combined last year. It only makes sense Samsung wouldn't want to negotiate with some annoying search giant over its every move while its busy trying to take over the world. It'd be easier to own its phones from top to bottom. But Samsung has always needed Google. It still does, but the Gear 2 shows its making other plans.

Tizen, Samsung's open-source, linux-based OS, has been waiting in the wings for years now. Shades of it have shown up cameras like the NX300. There have been constant rumours that a Samsung phone sporting a Tizen OS is just around the corner. But a big move towards a completely Tizen-based phone is still yet to come. After all, launching a new operating system and creating a stable of apps that can hold its own against mature competition like Android and iOS isn't something you can do overnight. Just ask Microsoft.

Slow and steady

But Samsung's advantage is that it doesn't have to do it overnight; it's has already been hard at work. Samsung's TouchWiz skin is notorious for burying devices' Android hearts far beneath an increasingly thick veneer of proprietary alternatives that are already the defaults for millions of users. Samsung already has its own app store. The more Samsungness slathered over the top of every Galaxy device, the easier it'll ultimately be to swap out the brains underneath, a quiet transition that takes Android from leader to loser in the smartphone race and makes Samsung the sole master of its own destiny.

Still, the world's foremost phone maker isn't going to up and switch to a new operating system until it's good and ready, or until it has to. But the plausible threat of doing so is plenty valuable in the meantime. Samsung and Google's uneasy alliance is founded on mutual need, and the more alternatives Samsung has up it's sleeve, the more powerful its position at the negotiating table.

Samsung's new NotePRO and TabPRO sport Android buried deep under UIs that look to almost be flirting with Windows. It's become such an issue that Google's reportedly pressuring Samsung to dial it the heck back. Meanwhile, Google's not unaware its positions with hardware makers—specifically Samsung—is precarious. You can bet it played a large role in the choice to let Moto go. But still, for now, the alliance goes on. Samsung and Google are even sharing patents.

What it means for you

Right now? Not a whole lot. Samsung's Tizen machinations are a long-term project, and maybe not even the goal. Samsung could do just as well—or better—using Tizen as a threat to keep Google in line than as an actual operating system. But to be able to do that, Samsung has to keep escalating.

Expect to see a lot more Tizen in the future. So far it's mostly been a background variable for nerds to speculate about, but now that it's featured on a Galaxy product—especially one Samsung seems so fond of pushing-it's a real prospect. Samsung's Smart TVs? Smart fridges? These are now all Tizen devices in the making, little venues where Samsung can show off its baby without running many risks.

The Galaxy S5 won't be running Tizen. Or the S6. Or the S7. But there's almost certainly a Tizen phone in the works right now. It may not come to a country near you, and it probably won't even bear the Galaxy name, but it'll float out into the wild as proof of concept, a bogeyman for Google to sweat. It'll look a lot like any other Samsung phone. In the meantime, TouchWiz is due for a redesign. Something less gaudy. Something that puts a less obnoxious but still thorough layer between you and Android. Something that could feasibly stand on its own one day.

If and when Samsung does jump ship to Tizen, dragging its flagship Galaxy line along, it could make serious waves all through Android. With such a big player suddenly out of the game, Android becomes much less appealing for app-makers just trying to reach lots of people instead of Android nerds. But don't expect loads of Tizen apps either; the trick would be HTML5 webapps, which Android and Tizen (and Ubuntu Touch, and Firefox OS and the late webOS) run admirably, and which the Gear 2 is already set up to lean on.

That possible future is still a long way off. The Gear's switch to Tizen certainly isn't the start of an all out war; it's entirely possible Tizen never matures beyond anything but a particularly large and scary bargaining chip. Now that it's out in the public eye though, we're seeing the first little jerk that signals the beginning of what could be the largest tug of war in tech has seen in a while. And we're all caught in the middle.