Why Samsung might be walking out on Android

Samsung's doing great with souped-up Android phones. So great they might leave Android behind.

Credit: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

If you think the Samsung Galaxy SIII is just about the best Android phone ever made, like many reviewers and techies do, then you'll be heartened to hear that the new CEO of Samsung wants to make the company's phones even Samsung-ier.

In a speech detailed by the Wall Street Journal (and excerpted by CNET News, for those without WSJ subscriptions), CEO Kwon Oh-hyun touted the Samsung-only apps that differentiate the Galaxy SIII from other Android phones. That includes “S Voice,” a Siri-like, voice-recognizing personal assistant, the “Smart Stay” feature that tracks your eyes to know where to focus and when to turn off, a lot of little apps for photos and videos, specialty apps that work with Samsung’s specialty stylus, and others. Other Android phone makers offer their own unique apps and interface tweaks, but Samsung’s remodeling is so pervasive and uniquely styled as to suggest Samsung might create its own operating system, or at least “fork” Android into a custom build that doesn’t track with Google’s new releases.

Why would Samsung choose to take on the job of maintaining its own OS when Google offers to do it for free, and, in fact, pushes hard to get new versions of its mostly open OS onto phones? A few reasons, as detailed by the WSJ, CNET, and recent Android history:

  • Differentiation: What sets one quad-core, hi-res, LTE-enabled Android phone apart from another? Lots of little hardware and software details, actually, but what really draws eyeballs and opens wallets is marquee features, in Samsung’s mind. 50 GB of online storage space, a phone that pulls up directions from your voice, a phone that calls people when you pick it up while looking at a text message—something different.

  • Side markets: With the official Android OS, it’s hard to close off certain apps and their offerings, or to lock in your own company’s music app and MP3 store as the primary tool for tunes. But look at what Amazon or Barnes & Noble have done with the Kindle Fire and the Nook (respectively): they’re “Android,” but they exist to sell and collect each maker’s offerings. Samsung has not looked at Amazon and Apple’s success and declared, “No, we’d rather not have that kind of diverse revenue, we’ll stick to razor-thin hardware margins.”

  • Paranoia: Google bought Motorola Mobility, and swore up and down that it would operate Motorola at an arm’s length: no exclusive access to Android versions, no favored status for Nexus device partnerships, and so forth. Samsung isn’t buying it. Samsung said it was looking forward to seeing Google utilizing Motorola’s patent portfolio to minimize Android litigation risks—but who isn’t looking forward to free things? Samsung executives have told CNET that they expect to be competing with Goog-orola directly when it comes to new phones and devices, and it’s hard to compete with the team that controls your software.

There’s a chance Samsung is still a happy Android partner, and just wants to tout its proprietary offerings above and beyond the general marketing points for Android. But there’s a much bigger chance that Samsung, emboldened by its recent successes and growing name recognition, will look at how proprietary profit is being made and move toward getting some of it.

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