Since adopting Google’s Android platform, Samsung has witnessed massive growth in its smartphone sales, currently rivaling Apple for the top spot globally. The company’s march to become the smartphone king began in earnest last year with a solid strategy: Design one great device and tweak it slightly for individual carriers as needed. The Samsung Galaxy S was that one great device last year, and its successor, the Galaxy S II, is already Samsung’s fastest-selling smartphone ever.
But Android is only part one of Samsung’s master plan. Part two is bada, the company’s own proprietary mobile platform. While Android has boosted sales, revenue and market share, it has also allowed Samsung to invest time and money into bada as a platform and an ecosystem complete with its own application store. The upstart operating system is already doing well, reportedly outselling Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 platform in the first quarter of this year with estimated sales of 3.5 million handsets. So why then would Samsung want to make the mistake of open-sourcing the bada platform?
How did this same approach work out for Nokia?
The talk of turning bada into an open-source project comes by way of a “person familiar with the matter” who spoke with the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper ran the story on Tuesday and reports that Samsung make take this step next year. While one can’t predict the future, it’s easy to look back and learn from the past, and in this case, Samsung need only look to Nokia, which has recently dropped to being the No. 3 global smartphone maker.
There are a number of reasons that Nokia’s Symbian platform eventually failed in the market: a slowness to modernize, a sometimes clumsy user interface and being late to the game with effective touch controls to name a few. But Nokia’s decision to consolidate the platform in 2008 with plans to open-source it and rely on other hardware partners to improve the code didn’t help either. A few niche handset makers such as Fujitsu still use Symbian, but Sony Ericsson, Motorola and even Samsung eventually abandoned the platform and moved to Android. Nokia, too, has moved on by partnering with Microsoft this past February to use Windows Phone as its primary smartphone platform going forward.
Given that Samsung is able to grow bada smartphone sales and build up the platform’s application store — prior to adding support for Android in March, the Samsung Apps store already had 13,000 bada titles and enjoyed 100 million app downloads — it simply doesn’t make sense to give up control of the platform. There’s little to gain and much to lose in the smartphone market if Samsung does open-source bada.
Samsung is improving bada quickly by itself
Perhaps bada will mature marginally faster through the efforts of outside companies or developers, but I’d argue that the platform is moving along quite nicely on its own. When bada first debuted in 2010, it looked like a relatively basic mobile operating system — so much so that I thought it was a mistake to launch the platform. Fast-forward to present day, and you’ll see that bada 2.0 has quickly gained more advanced features, and the sales figures have proven me wrong. Last month, Samsung announced capable new bada 2.0 phones and showed off this video of the updated platform, highlighting new multitasking functionality, voice recognition, NFC support and Wi-Fi Direct technology to name just a few:
Keeping control will help market share
With bada 2.0, Samsung has created what it calls a “smartphone for everyone,” meaning it’s a platform for the masses, not the early adopters, and it has done so on its own. What incentive is there to open the platform up to others? If another handset maker wants to use bada, it won’t help Samsung’s hardware sales or market share, although the company could gain marginally through its app store or media hub. There’s just no tangible benefit to take this path, and given the pace of improvement in bada, no reason to give up control of the platform.
The Wall Street Journal article indicates Samsung may use bada to power smart TVs, but in this market too, Samsung is the master of its domain: The company builds and sells its own televisions. Why bother giving competitors such as LG, Sony, Panasonic, Vizio or others the opportunity to use bada in their television sets? All that would do is give up a key differentiator that Samsung now has; it certainly won’t help sell more Samsung televisions.
Another potential pitfall: the F word
If Nokia’s Symbian effort doesn’t scare Samsung off the open-source path, then perhaps a closer look at Android might. Outside of key Google apps such as Gmail and Maps, Android is open for all to use or modify for smartphones, tablets or other devices. I have a treadmill with an embedded Google-powered touchscreen, for example. I can surf the web as I jog, and the treadmill runs custom software showing my speed and pace. This flexibility is great, but it has also helped turn Android into a fragmented mess that required new solutions.
Samsung has what others don’t
Simply put, with bada, Samsung has an asset that few competitors can also lay claim to: a viable and growing in-house mobile operating system that’s proving popular. In other words, competing handset makers such as HTC, LG and Motorola, for example, are tied to the Google Android wagon with no chance of breaking away just yet. So far, the Android strategy hasn’t hurt these companies, and instead has brought success to those who embraced it early, and that includes Samsung.
But even as Android becomes more popular, the specter of patent suits loom, both in the case of Java with Oracle and Samsung’s own trials with Apple. And although Samsung is customizing Android phones with its TouchWiz interface, others are doing the same. HTC does this well with Sense, while Motorola’s MotoBlur has shown less success. Regardless of the user interface tweaks, at their core, these different phones all provide very similar experiences because they’re build upon the same underlying Android code.
Why then open-source the one asset that’s not only a decent hedge against such risks but is also selling handsets? It simply doesn’t make sense in my opinion, and if Samsung does open-source bada, I’ll be keen to hear the company’s reasons why it chooses to go that route.