Samsung flails as Tizen’s clock ticks

Samsung said this week it is delaying the release of the Samsung Z, shelving the first smartphone running its homegrown Tizen operating system. The Samsung Z was slated to launch in Russia this fall but is now on indefinite hold while the company scrambles “to further develop both Tizen OS and the Tizen ecosystem.”

The postponement is only the latest setback for Tizen, which has roots in the MeeGo platform that Nokia ditched in 2011 in favor of Windows Phone. But despite garnering some positive reviews, Tizen has been plagued by setbacks before it reached the starting gate: A developers’ conference in Moscow was recently cancelled when Samsung failed to produce smartphones running the OS, Japan’s NTT DoCoMo announced in January it was indefinitely suspending plans to launch a Tizen handset, and Sprint left the Tizen Association last year.

Manufacturing isn’t enough

Simply manufacturing mobile devices is a cutthroat, low-margin business for any player not named Apple, and those margins are only declining as sales of low-end smartphones explode in emerging markets. That’s why Samsung until recently had been working to co-opt Google’s operating system by creating its own ecosystem of apps and devices within the larger Android world. But Google this year has handcuffed that strategy considerably by retaking control of Android and restricting access to key features of the platform from companies that fork it and use it as a foundation of their own branded offerings. Samsung responded by easing up on the development of its own Android-based apps and services rather than face the daunting task of forking Android and replacing features like Google Play and Google Maps.

That should have given Samsung an increased sense of urgency to bring Tizen to market, but the company has made precious little progress this year. The Korean manufacturer has produced cameras and smartwatches running the OS, but demand for such connected devices is still very uncertain. Additionally, this week’s announcement indicates Samsung has failed to lure the throngs of developers needed to make Tizen an attractive platform for smartphone owners. And that task won’t get any easier as Windows Phone slowly grows its audience, emerging as a distant third-place platform behind Android and iOS.

Emerging markets: Full of potential and peril

Tizen is clearly aimed at the emerging markets where smartphone penetration lags behind more mature regions. But while those markets are teeming with potential, they’re also brutally competitive: Apple is making strides in some markets both with older iPhones and the 5C model, a small army of manufacturers is churning out ultra-low end Android devices for as little as $38 without a contract, and Microsoft is increasingly focused on the emerging markets where Windows Phone has gained traction. Meanwhile, newer platforms such as BlackBerry 10 and Firefox OS are struggling to gain a toehold in some of those regions, and Jolla’s Sailfish and Ubuntu Touch are hoping to join the fray.

It’s still too early to write off Tizen completely. Samsung is a massive company with a huge smartphone footprint around the world, and its carrier partners could provide a huge push for Tizen if they choose to. And I suppose there’s a chance Tizen could emerge as a viable OS for the internet of things, although Samsung has yet to make the case that it’s superior to Android or iOS for that segment. I wrote in January that Tizen wasn’t dead yet, but Samsung’s lack of progress since then is troubling. Most developers shouldn’t invest in building apps for Tizen until they see some real progress. And they shouldn’t be surprised if that progress never occurs.