The strained relationship between Google and Samsung over Android customization has been apparent for a while, and it now looks like this discontent has spread to the wearable world. Google CEO Larry Page reportedly confronted Samsung last week over its decision to invest more in its Gear 2 and Gear Fit smartwatches than the Android Wear-packing Gear Live.
While the details of Page’s discussions aren’t available, it’s clear that Google wants its biggest hardware partner to devote more attention to its Android-based platform.
Reportedly, Google had even wanted Samsung to avoid dipping into wrist-worn technology until Android Wear was ready. As we know now, the Korean company didn’t exactly honor that request, instead, it released the Galaxy Gear and quickly threw most of its energy into peripherals running Tizen and other platforms.
Google is growing increasingly worried that Samsung, its largest licensee, is working to undermine its own strategy for Android, while Samsung and the rest of the industry is concerned that Google has become a “bully,” according to a new report by The Information.
Reports of contention between Google and Samsung are not new, but increasing hostility between the two companies were clearly evident at the recent Allen & Co. meeting of tech and media industry luminaries recently held in Sun Valley, according to a report by The Information written by Jessica Lessin.
In particular, the report described a “tense private meeting” at the event between Google’s chief executive Larry Page and Samsung vice chairman Jay Y. Lee. The meeting involved Samsung’s smartwatch strategy, which is currently focused primarily on Tizen and a heavily customized Android fork, rather than Google’s official Android Wear.
Google is upset that Android is being used as an open platform
“Right before Samsung launched its first Gear watch last fall,” Lessin wrote, “Google objected to how it planned to brand the device, since it was running a very heavily modified version of Android, according to people familiar with the matter. Google had wanted Samsung to wait to release the Gear until its new version of Android for wearables, Android Wear, was ready. But Samsung pushed ahead.”
Back in 2010, Google similarly tried to stop Samsung from using Android 2.x to build a tablet clone of Apple’s iPad, insisting that its Android licensees wait until it could release Android 3.0 Honeycomb with features that promoted Google’s own vision for tablets.
Samsung pushed ahead with its Galaxy Tab anyway, distracting attention away from Google’s Honeycomb project while also creating a bad experience for early Android tablet adopters. Google had also warned Samsung that its tablet products were too obviously similar to Apple’s iPad.
After Android Honeycomb tablets (led by Motorola) dramatically flopped in 2011, Google shifted to the cheaper, smaller strategy of Samsung’s original Tab. Google failed to find success in a problematic partnership with Asus, then jumped to partner with Samsung while still finding tablet success elusive.
Samsung has also struggled to sell tablets on its own, although it has boosted its phone sales by appealing to customers with handsets paired with a nearly-tablet sized screen. With Apple widely believed to be designing larger iPhone models, Samsung has scrambled to identify the “next big thing” to maintain its sales volumes, most recently arriving at smartwatches.
Samsung’s Tizen threatens to cut Android in half
Samsung initially used a heavily-modified Android to power its first Galaxy Gear watch. However, fights between the two companies concerning Samsung’s copying of the Google Play store and muscling into other services (including advertising) that Google expected to keep for itself have since contributed to Samsung’s efforts to develop new watch models based on its own Tizen.
Samsung’s Tizen is a version of Linux that abandons Google’s tightly controlled Android platform to rid the company of Google’s restrictions while allowing Samsung to differentiate its products from the even cheaper copies being produced in China.
Documents revealed during the Apple-Samsung trial showed that by late 2011, Samsung was already plotting to “influence a 3rd mobile OS platform viability and scale by driving volume aggressively,” noting that “what matters most in adoption” was “market penetration.”
At the time, Samsung observed “this won’t be easy,” noting that “two thirds of developers say there is [little] chance OSes or hardware would become attractive enough to overtake Android as the No. 2 mobile dev platform, let alone the untouchable Apple iOS.”
In late 2009, Samsung initially dabbled with its own Bada Linux distribution, then partnered with Intel to resurrect the mobile Linux work Intel and Nokia had collaborated on earlier, resulting in Samsung vs Android
Tizen, which combined elements of all three companies’ work.
Were Samsung able to migrate its Galaxy customers from Android to Tizen, Google’s market share numbers of devices using Android code would collapse in half. Fortunately for Google, Samsung hasn’t been very successful with Tizen so far.
Google demands Samsung fall in line
At the beginning of this year, Google’s head of Android Sundar Pichai demanded Samsung drop its new “Magazine UX” tablet interface, with The Information later reporting that Pichai was “prepared to forbid” Samsung from using Google’s ostensibly open Android operating system unless Samsung surrendered more control to Google.
Google expected to force adoption of its own upcoming “Material Design” appearance across all Android licensees, just like it had attempted to similarly push Android tablet licensees to adopt Android 3.0 Honeycomb’s “Holo” appearance. Both “new” interfaces were developed by Matias Duarte, the designer Google poached from Palm’s webOS group. “Ironically, Google’s original premise for Android was that it would allow companies to “openly” innovate and experiment with different designs”
Ironically, Google’s original premise for Android was that it would allow companies to “openly” innovate and experiment with different designs while also allowing hackers and hobbyists to fully access all parts of the operating system, ideas that Google contrasted against Apple’s plans for uniform, secure iPhones limited to running approved, encryption-signed apps.
However, Google’s current plan for Android imposes increasingly strict rules over Android licensees and introduces locked down security features similar to iOS, in an effort to dump hobbyists and pick up enterprise customers and other higher end customers who are willing to pay a premium for secure devices.
With Tizen currently unable to power a smartphone that buyers want, Samsung bowed to Google’s demands earlier this year, and even agreed to “contribute” to Google the Knox security software it had developed to differentiate its own phones.
Google’s demands get even more strident for Android Wear
Having crushed Samsung’s aspirations for original phone and tablet software, Google is now demanding that Samsung stop developing its own Tizen-powered watches and instead fall in line to support Android Wear, which is only represented on one of the four smartwatch models Samsung currently sells. “”Media, technology and advertising executives privately aired their concerns about Google’s growing power in advertising and mobile phones throughout the event” – The Information”
“Mr. Page’s irritation over Samsung’s wearables strategy leaves Samsung in a tough spot,” Lessin wrote. “Company executives say they are extraordinarily reluctant to aggravate Google, yet they remain concerned about their dependence on Android and ability to differentiate on top of it.”
Samsung isn’t alone in its concerns. “Media, technology and advertising executives privately aired their concerns about Google’s growing power in advertising and mobile phones throughout the event,” Lessin stated.
After Page outlined his vision for the future of Google, Lessin added that “privately, executives were quick to call the company a ‘bully’ and to plot ways to counter Google’s growing power.”
Google’s bullying hostility to outside partners has not worked in the company’s favor. After seeking to appropriate TV networks’ content and add its own advertising in Google TV, broadcasters blocked their content from the device, helping to condemn the flawed product to failure.
Banks, carriers and other firms similarly balked at supporting the company’s self-serving plans for NFC and Google Wallet, helping to turn the ambitious project into a total fiasco.