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Samsung Weans Itself From Android—at Least for Smart Watches

Samsung’s new Galaxy Gear smart watches will have longer battery lives in part thanks to the highly customized Tizen operating system.
February 23, 2014

As Mobile World Congress kicks off in Barcelona Monday, one major question is whether Samsung will abandon Google’s Android operating system for the custom Tizen OS, truly tearing apart the most powerful alliance in mobile computing.

Wrist action: Samsung’s updated smart watch features a different operating system, perhaps signalling a broader move away from Android.

The answer turns out to be yes—at least for smart watches. Less than six months after launching a line of Android–powered watch called Galaxy Gear (see “Is Samsung’s Galaxy Gear the First Truly Smart Watch?”) Samsung today said the next version of the devices will run on Tizen.

It is far from clear, however, whether Samsung’s planned “unpacking” of the Galaxy 5 smartphone Monday evening will include such a radical departure. Samsung might well be sticking with Android on its phones—for now. But the smart watch move could be a clear indication that it’s only a matter of time before Samsung weans itself from Android on phones and everything else, too.

The Tizen OS has been a pet project of Samsung for years, and is meant to provide an integrated experience across all mobile devices, TVs, and even car entertainment and telematics systems. It grew out of Nokia’s MeeGo platform, and is now being developed by an industry consortium led by Samsung and Intel; last year the consortium held a series of developer challenges with incentives totaling $4 million to develop a few thousand apps—and it appears that a third-party platform will also allow tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of Android apps to run on it (see “Tizen Will Hit the Ground Running  with Android Apps.”)  Yet until today, the only actual commercial gadget available for it was a camera.

What are the advantages for users? At an event of the Tizen Association today in Barcelona, I spoke with Jongdeok Choi, the executive vice president and deputy head of Samsung’s software R&D center. He wasn’t very inclined to reveal company secrets about launch plans, but did say Tizen is tightly customized for each type of device it runs on.  The version that runs on the smartwatch is less code-intensive, helping provide far more battery life compared to the Android version. “We can be made very lightweight so it is very good for wearable devices,” he said. (The company is promising that battery life will stretch to two or three days of typical use – where the first version only lasted a day.)

Choi even went so far as to say Tizen OS stood in its own category as a watch OS.  “What are the others?  There is nothing to compare it to!” he said, referring to Tizen’s ability to be custom-tailored. “It’s the core of our principles that it will work across all devices.”

The company says the new Gear gadgets will be compatible with “dozens” of Samsung devices and include a music player, heart monitor, and will hvae a number of pre-loaded apps. It moves the camera from the previous version’s strap, to the watch face itself.  It will be one millimeter thinner and a little bit lighter—but still pretty chunky-looking (see “Smart Watches Need a Makeover—and a Shrink Ray”).

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