Samsung vs. Google: an Interview with Rafael Barbosa Barifouse of Redacao Epoca

On Mar 18, 2013, Rafael Barbosa Barifouse – Redacao Epoca – Editora Globo asked (and I answered):

Q: Why is Samsung creating Tizen?

A: I believe they are collaborating on Tizen development because they want an alternative to Android and because Bada was not good enough to meet that goal. Tizen’s roots include contributions from Intel, Nokia and several Japanese companies so it’s not Samsung’s OS per se. Historically it was the “open” alternative operating system for embedded and mobile systems. See for a historic perspective.

In some ways Tizen seems to be a blend of several pieces of code including proprietary Samsung user interfaces. Samsung is presumably interested in having a unique, differentiated experience. This is something every device maker seeks. Put another way, if they did not seek this then it’s unlikely that they would be profitable which would also imply that they would not invest in marketing and development of products. As Samsung invests both in marketing and development it can be concluded that they seek to offer a unique value proposition and, in today’s market, that means a unique experience.

Does it make sense to create a new mobile OS when it has had so much success with Android?

Samsung would argue that the success it’s had is not due to Android but to its products. Arguably they are right because if Android were the valuable component in a phone then buyers would buy the absolute cheapest device that runs Android regardless of brand. That is not the case. People still seek out a particular brand of phone because of the promise it offers. Consumers have been buying more Galaxies than no-name Android phones.

Why is Samsung the most successful company between the Android devices makers?

In my opinion it’s due to three reasons:

  1. Distribution. Success in the phone business depends in having a relationship with a large number of operators. Samsung had these relationships prior to becoming a smartphone vendor [because it sold all other kinds of phones]. Few alternative Android vendors have the level of distribution Samsung has. For comparison Apple has less than half the distribution level of Samsung and most other vendors have less than Apple.
  2. Marketing and promotion. Samsung Electronics spent nearly $12 billion in 2012 on marketing expenses of which $4 billion (est.) was on advertising. Few Android vendors (or any other company) has the resources to match this level of marketing. For comparison, Apple’s 2012 advertising spending was one quarter of Samsung’s.
  3. Supply chain. Samsung can supply the market in large quantities. This is partly due to having their own semiconductor production facilities. Those facilities were in a large part built using Apple contract revenues over the years they supplied iPhone, iPad and iPod components. No Android competitors (except for LG perhaps) had either the capacity to produce components or the signal well in advance to enter the market in volume as Samsung did by being an iPhone supplier.

Tizen was being treated as an OS for low and mid level devices, but recently Samsung said that it will launch a high-end device with Tizen on Q3, an area where it’s very successful with Android. What has changed? What does this announcement mean?

Planning for these product launches is done a few years prior to launch. I believe alternatives to the Android line (i.e. Galaxy) have been planned for a long time. Note that Samsung also has a line of Windows Phones and historically has supported Bada, Windows Mobile, Symbian, PalmOS and LiMo smartphone platforms. Samsung’s involvement with Android is only about three years old, and arguably only enjoyed two years of prominent growth. That’s less than one product launch cycle and far less than a platform or OS development cycle.

I believe the company has a long term perspective and that includes a time span beyond the likely lifetime of Android [Note that platforms do have finite lives]. Keep in mind that phones last less than two years. If users are not loyal to a platform then they will very quickly move on. The “stickyness” of a platform depends on media or software consumption by the user. That level of consumption is not particularly high for most Android users. The same phenomenon happened with Symbian and BlackBerry and Windows Mobile users. Hundreds of millions switched or will switch out of those platforms. This happens far less with iOS, Mac OS X and Windows because of the significant investments users make in the ecosystems above the OS.

Is Google dependent on Samsung’s sucess with Android? Or Samsung is more dependent on Android since its the most popular mobile OS nowadays?

Google is not dependent on Samsung because it’s not dependent on Android. Samsung is not dependent on Google because Samsung is not dependent on Android. Android is valuable in theory but in practice its value is hard to identify. Historically it was planned as a defense against the hegemony of Windows, BlackBerry and iOS. In that respect it has succeeded. But playing defense is not enough to win a game. For Google to truly succeed in mobile it needs to define a better business model.

So far its profitability from mobile is very weak and has not shown up in the bottom line. Furthermore, it’s probable that Google has ‘control’ over only about 40% of Android devices in use. Control here means a guarantee that users will use those devices for the benefit of Google, and, more importantly, not for the benefit of its competitors.

You can also think of it this way: If they “divorced” there would be minimal to no impact to their fortunes in the foreseeable future. Buyers of Samsung phones will still buy Samsung phones because they will look and feel very similar and Google services will still be available through browsers or apps (e.g. Google maps on iOS). Conversely, users of Google services will continue to use them because they will be available on Samsung devices, no matter what OS is running. The services Google offers are independent of Android and are cross-platform. They will make sure they are available on all major platforms (as they were before and during Android). Google is far more loyal to Search and Maps and Gmail and YouTube than they are to Android.

Do you think Google is going to merge Android with Chrome OS?

Google’s chairman said they would so I assume they will.

If so, how this could make an impact on Samsung?

It depends on how the new OS would enforce licensing terms. If the result would be a restriction on Samsung services like S Pen, AdHub, Samsung Wallet, SmartTV, ChatON etc. then Samsung might reject the OS and either fork Android or move to Tizen more broadly.