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Samsung’s Next Big Android Play


Samsung’s Next Big Android Play

Photograph by Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

As much as Google (GOOG) likes and touts that Android is open, that freedom may come with the cost of some control over the platform. Amazon (AMZN) may have started the first truly successful “fork” of Android, but Samsung Electronics (005930:KS) is going after the whole place setting.

Samsung kicked off its first Developers Conference on Monday and, based on the keynote message, I wouldn’t be too happy if I were Google. This is no small effort from Samsung, which sells the most Android devices by a large margin compared with its peers. The announced 1,300 attendees at the event in San Francisco heard that Samsung is releasing five new SDKs (software development kits) for various devices ranging from phones to tablets to televisions.

To give an idea of what Samsung is doing, just look at the new Mobile SDK: It supports Samsung’s pen, gestures, multi-window, and motion features with 800 APIs (application programming interfaces) available to developers. If that number doesn’t grab you, consider what Samsung said about opportunities for developers. By simply adding the digital pen to a phone in the first and subsequent Galaxy Note handsets, more than 1,800 pen-enabled apps were created. And the company sells two televisions every second. Clearly, Samsung is trying to entice developer attention for its platform.

Wait, isn’t Samsung’s platform Android? Absolutely. Samsung has effectively built an individual, closed environment of apps and features on top of the open Android. Amazon has done much the same with its Fire OS on Kindle Fire tablets, but its approach was a little different.

Amazon didn’t start out using Google Android, but instead employed the Android Open Source Project—software without core Google apps and services—to develop the Kindle Fire. In contrast, Samsung used the full Google Android software to build up a huge global audience, and now it’s going to make sure it, not Google, owns those customers. I barely heard Android mentioned during the conference keynote, in fact.

Samsung’s approach doesn’t end with its popular phones and tablets, though.

As my colleague Janko Roettgers reported earlier, Samsung’s new Multiscreen SDK applies to another of its products—televisions:

“The new SDK, once adopted by developers, will make it possible to press a button on your phone to launch an online video stream, or even a game, on your TV. Sound familiar? That’s not really a coincidence—but Samsung thinks that it can one-up its competition.”

That last phrase is central to what I heard during the keynote. Samsung has clearly become successful and profitable by pushing Android devices as well as including its own add-on features and functions. That’s clearly not good enough for the company now, because Android by itself can take Samsung only so far and doesn’t give it total control over its own destiny. In addition to the aforementioned SDK’s, Samsung also offered ones for Multiscreen Gaming, Smart TVs, and KNOX, the company’s enterprise-grade security software.

At this point, Samsung is taking advantage of its dominant position as the Android device leader to become the “de facto” Android phone and crush any remaining competition. And I’m not sure what Google can do about it, save for pulling more and more key functions out of the Android software and instead making them standalone apps in the Google Play store. Even if it does this, the damage is already done from where I stand: Samsung has built its mobile business on Android and can now push forward with less “help” from Google.

As long as Samsung remains a helpful partner in the Android ecosystem and properly licenses Google apps and services for devices, it’s not as if Google can wrest Android away from Samsung. And Google has zero control over the extra features Samsung has added to its devices, such as digital inking with the S-Pen, S-Voice for text input, Samsung Wallet for payments, and gesture-based navigation using sensors.

The overall strategy Samsung has employed so far is clever: Build up a massive global audience for products using someone else’s software while also creating your own apps to start taking the place of integral Android features across smartphones, tablets, televisions, even smartwatches. Thanks to Android, Samsung hasn’t needed to develop an operating system of its own. Why should it, when it can slowly transition developers and users to create software for its own hardware?

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