A new Linux-based mobile operating system may just challenge Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android for supremacy in the world of mobile platforms.
Yeah, I know: You’ve heard this one before. Aside from Android — which is Linux-based but not a Linux distribution — the mobile landscape is littered with open-source wreckage, from Openmoko to the LiMo Platform to Moblin to Maemo. Such efforts have foundered because they failed to gain widespread support from handset manufacturers, relegating them to novelty platforms used mainly by hardcore techies and developers.
But Tizen could be different. An outgrowth of the MeeGo project (which itself is a combination of the Moblin and Maemo operating systems), Tizen was in the news late last week when Samsung said it will integrate the operating system with its homegrown bada platform. The world’s largest smartphone manufacturer said the merged platforms will enable Tizen to support apps written with bada’s software development kit (SDK), including backwards compatibility for existing bada apps. Samsung plans to release one or two Tizen-based phones by the end of the year. The company recently said it is considering bringing bada to U.S. consumers, and integration with Tizen could give the platform enough technical muscle to compete with Android and the iPhone. In other words, Tizen is poised to thrive where so many others have failed.
Tizen + bada = potential
Bada has yet to hit U.S. shores and is a small player with a mere 2.2 percent worldwide market share. But that share has doubled in the past year, and bada’s audience of 8 million users outsizes Windows Phone’s. Also, bada’s growing developer community includes heavyweights such as EA, Gameloft and Capcom, giving Samsung the developer muscle necessary to push the evolution of Tizen. Those developers are likely to be enticed by Tizen’s open-source nature, but they will also be interested because it is built on web standards including HTML5, a technology that promises to help developers address a broad range of handsets without building stand-alone apps for individual platforms.
Bada was created as a kind of bridge between feature phones and smartphones, enabling lower-end devices to perform like their more-expensive counterparts. Integrating Tizen gives the manufacturer a chance to join Apple and now Google in the rarefied air of players who control both a top-notch operating system and a handset production business. The move would also enable Samsung to build phones without paying for the pricey licenses that are required for Windows Phone and Android handsets.
And Samsung has the strong carrier ties that could push Tizen toward mainstream adoption. The company recently released its fourth-quarter guidance, which indicated that it enjoyed a profit of more than $4 billion, thanks largely to smartphone sales, which may have reached a whopping 35 million units. In addition to its massive worldwide footprint, it sells phones through all four top-tier network operators in the United States, which is a critical market for any next-generation mobile operating system.
What it will take
So how can Samsung succeed with an open-source mobile operating system when so many others have failed? It already boasts a solid developer community that is sure to grow as bada’s market share increases, and Tizen could be especially attractive to application builders: In addition to being open-source, it provides access to a growing base of bada consumers. Also, enlisting a few other manufacturers to build Tizen-based hardware would help as well. (Intel spoke of producing Tizen-based tablets last week in Las Vegas but has yet to disclose any real plans.)
But the most important move Samsung must make with Tizen is ensuring that its carrier partners are in the fold. Network operators still hold the key to smartphone sales (see Verizon Wireless’ marketing campaign for the Motorola Droid, among others), and a lack of carrier support is widely being blamed for Microsoft’s inability to find much of an audience for Windows Phone. Carriers not only are crucial for distribution but also have the brand name and deep pockets necessary to move phones off the shelves. As Samsung brings Tizen handsets to market, it should work closely with carriers to carry out high-profile marketing campaigns and cross-promote the devices. It should also leverage the Tizen Foundation (formerly the LiMo Foundation), a consortium of wireless players whose members include carrier powerhouses like NTT DoCoMo, Vodafone and Verizon Wireless.
We have long argued that there is room for a third major operating system alongside Android and Apple’s iOS, because both platforms have their shortcomings. But Windows Phone has yet to demonstrate it can challenge the front-runners, and BlackBerry continues to flail. If Samsung moves aggressively with Tizen and entices carriers to cooperate, it could expand beyond simply making phones into the broader and more lucrative world of software coupled with hardware.