What’s Samsung really up to?

BitDepth#931 for April 08 Samsung S5 launch in Trinidad and Tobago

Last week, perhaps not coincidentally on April 01, Samsung brought its World Tour previewing the newest version of its flagship smartphone, the S5, to Trinidad.

I’ve been fortunate enough to test the line since its first model and there has been a steady, even relentless regime of improvements to the phone since it emerged as the first serious contender to Apple’s then dominant iPhone.

Of late, though, revolutionary has been replaced by evolutionary in the smartphone ecosystem and it’s possible to skip a generation or two (usually six to nine months worth of waiting) on your preferred platform without major dislocation.

Samsung has, in quick succession, released the S3, S4 and this week will unleash the S5, three phones that are more notably different in their specifications than in their day to day usability. At the launch, Elias Kabeche, vice-president of sales and marketing for Samsung Latin America touted the new software driven features of the phone, such as improved access security using PayPal certified fingerprint recognition and lifestyle features that emphasise personal security and health as major improvements to the phone’s utility for average users.

It’s sometimes useful, in situations like this when one is immersed in a carefully planned corporate communications exercise, to stop looking at the hand that’s meant to get your attention to see what else is happening. For one thing, Samsung hasn’t been talking much about Android lately, even though their most successful smartphones run on Google’s operating system.

For another, Samsung isn’t talking about Tizen at all, and that’s the OS that’s running their revised suite of Gear smartwatches. I had an opportunity to flip through the new phone at the launch, which except for some cosmetic changes, works exactly like the S3 and S4 did. There’s more spit and polish to the user interface chrome and some new designs to the iconography, but there will be few surprises for existing S series users. What app users will quickly find, however, is a deeper reliance on Samsung’s own app store for the phone, previously a source of add on games and updates to the unique software that the company ships with the phone.

With the S5, particularly when paired with one of the new Gear 2 smart watches, signing up with the Samsung App store isn’t really going to be an optional exercise anymore. It’s here, I suspect, that Samsung will be driving more of its innovation and technology development as it seeks to separate itself from the large pool of Android phone models to create a software ecosystem that makes it more of a peer challenger with competitor Apple. Putting a new OS on a new device is unquestionably a clever move.

Since Samsung has the most pervasive smartwatch available on the market, there are no real expectations for the platform beyond linking up with a phone and telling the time, so Tizen has an opportunity to define itself as a platform while giving developers a chance to test the waters on a device with a small but guaranteed audience. So while Samsung is making a lot of fuss about the health monitoring capabilities of the watch/phone combination, that’s the spear tip of the company’s effort to meet rumours about Apple’s iWatch project.

The South Korean electronics manufacturer is playing it stage smart, solidifying its market with new models while adding features that its competitors may or may not be planning, but while it’s doing that quite theatrically, it’s also slipping in the Trojan horse of a new operating system based on Linux and aggressively open sourced.

Samsung doesn’t really want to talk about operating systems, it wants to talk about why users should continue to use its phones but the hardware giant clearly wants to improve its software options for its devices. If it can point developers to an open source operating system and an app store that’s up and running, then it can push innovation in bits as well as atoms.

Tizen on the new Gear devices is the change to watch in this revision of the Galaxy series. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t more movement in the Samsung App store in support of unique developer experiences to go along with it.