The Hilton Union Square Hotel in San Francisco was busier than normal as people hustled to grab boxed sandwich lunches.
The food was provided by Samsung, which played host to a developer conference last week to promote its homegrown Tizen operating system. With a turkey sandwich in hand, I struck up a conversation with a photographer who has never made a Tizen app.
“I was hoping to learn how to use thein photography,” said Rosswell Liongson, who found out about the event at the Samsung section of a Bay Area Best Buy store.
Unfortunately for Liongson, the 360 camera wasn’t a topic at the Tizen conference, held the same time as Google’s popular I/O developer conference. It only works with Samsung’s high-end Android phones and, soon, Apple’s iPhones (but, notably, not Tizen).
The second person I met was an IT worker who dabbled in app development on the side. He tried making a Tizen smartwatch app once but said he probably won’t work with the software again.
Then there was the conference sponsor whose technology acts as a smart home remote via iPhones or Android devices — but not Tizen. Another IT worker said he had no plans to make Tizen apps but wanted to learn more about what Samsung’s up to.
Sense a trend here?
The interactions I had underscored the perennial problem Samsung faces as it pushes its own software. It’s hard to get people excited about yet another operating system, particularly when it comes to mobile. After fits and starts, Tizen has finally found a niche in powering Samsung’s internet-connected home appliances and TVs, as well as its Gear smartwatches. But for the lifeblood of any platform — developers — Tizen is largely still a non-entity. That’s a particular problem when it comes to mobile.
“There’s no need for another mobile operating system and basically no chance of success for another mobile operating system,” Global Data analyst Avi Greengart said. “If I’ve got an OS, I’m going to find other markets for it.”
But, this is Samsung we’re talking about. If anyone can make it work, it’s the world’s largest phone maker, right?
The company declined to make any executives available for interview at the developer conference. It said more than 1,000 people — developers, service and content partners — attended the event, and “the majority” were developers.
A rough start
Android, iOS and Windows may be household names, but you’d be forgiven if you’ve never even heard of Tizen.
This year’s Tizen Developer Conference marked the fifth annual gathering (yep, there’s already been five). Walking around the Hilton ballrooms, it was clear many of the attendees were Samsung employees.
It wasn’t always that way.
The first such gathering, in 2012 in San Francisco, marked the introduction of Tizen 1.0 as an open-source project. The real launch came in February 2013 when a group of heavy-hitting companies, led by Samsung, held a splashy party at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow in Barcelona. Attendees snacked on freshly shucked oysters and made-to-order crepes as they learned how Samsung and its lead development partner, Intel, planned to upend the mobile market. On display were several prototype phones running Tizen.
At that time, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android dominated the phone world, but it wasn’t too farfetched to think there could be a strong third player. Microsoft tried. So did BlackBerry and Mozilla. All failed.
“The phone is highly dependent on apps,” Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. “Look at how well Microsoft [and others] learned that lesson.”
But Tizen had other big wireless providers on board, like Sprint, Vodafone, Japan’s NTT Docomo and France’s Orange. Kiyohito Nagata, managing director of strategic marketing for NTT DoCoMo and then-chairman of the Tizen Association, hailed the launch event as “the basement of the future success of the Tizen OS and ecosystem.”
Eventually, the carriers all ditched their plans for Tizen phones. Rather than pushing out a flashy, high-end phone, Samsung instead targeted emerging markets with a cheap device. Its first Tizen phone, the Samsung Z, was slated for release in late 2014 in Russia; instead, the company delayed it indefinitely.
The company eventually introduced the Samsung Z1 in India in 2015 for less than $100. It expanded to other Southwest Asian countries that year and moved into Africa and Southeast Asia — South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and Indonesia — in 2016. This year, it will launch Tizen phones across the entire continent of Africa as well as Middle Eastern and Latin American countries such as Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Bolivia and Peru.
Last week, Samsung introduced the Z4, its latest budget Tizen phone. It also boasted at the developer confab that Tizen phone sales jumped 30 percent globally from 2015 to 2016 and will more than double in 2017.
“We’re expecting continuous but even faster growth in the future,” Hokyu Choi, director and head of the Tizen mobile business at Samsung, said during a keynote at the Tizen Developer Conference.
He added that, eventually, Samsung’s Tizen phones “will be available to all countries in the world.”
Still, it will be tough going. Even though Samsung has talked up the success of Tizen, CounterPoint Research analyst Neil Shah estimated Samsung sold 1 million Tizen phones in India, the software’s first and biggest market. That’s a big number until you consider it’s less than 3 percent of the total number of smartphones the company sold in that country, and less than 1 percent of the total smartphones in India shipped by all handset makers, he said.
Overall, Samsung last year shipped 309.4 million smartphones globally, according to Strategy Analytics. It remained the world’s biggest phone maker — with 21 percent of the market — despite the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco hurting its sales.
If at first you don’t succeed…
In 2013, JK Shin, the head of Samsung’s mobile business at the time, said the company wanted Tizen to be on everything. Samsung’s nearly reached that goal, with its TVs, appliances and wearables using the software.
Despite Samsung’s ambitions for Tizen smartphones, it’s all the other connected devices where it has a better chance, analysts say.
Take smartwatches. Samsung’s first device, the Galaxy Gear from late 2013, initially ran Android, but Samsung updated the software to Tizen in May 2014. Ever since then, virtually all of Samsung’s smartwatches run Tizen.
In the first quarter of 2017, Tizen leapfrogged Google’s Android Wear software to become the second biggest operating system for smartwatches with 19 percent market share, according to Strategy Analytics. Apple, with its watchOS, had 57 percent of the market.
“It makes sense for Samsung to say, ‘Use Android where it does best,’ but Tizen has a really useful role to play in wearables and other places where Android has fallen short,” Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson said.
In 2015, Tizen made its way to Samsung’s smart TV lineup. It’s also now in smart home appliances, like the Family Hub Refrigerator. It’s those products where Samsung has an edge — it’s the world’s biggest TV maker and the largest home appliance vendor in the US. Google and Apple don’t have the same presence in larger electronics. Google didn’t have a comment for this report.
The day after my turkey sandwich lunch, I was back in the Hilton ballroom to meet with Glympse CEO Bryan Trussel. The location-sharing app is one developer that’s supported Tizen nearly from the beginning. It has built apps for Samsung’s smartwatches and at CES in January unveiled an app for Samsung’s Family Hub 2.0 refrigerator. During the developer conference last week, Glympse said it had developed an app for Samsung’s smart TVs that let you see the location of family members — or even your cable provider — right on the television’s display.
Trussel walked me over to Samsung’s flashy — and pricey — refrigerator to show me how I could track my Pizza Hut delivery on the appliance’s screen or see when my loved ones would get home. Then he showed me the same features on a large Samsung smart TV.
“The goal is anywhere, any device, any time,” Trussel said of the Glympse app.
Next up for Glympse and its Samsung partnership could be an actual Tizen phone app. The two companies are in talks about that now, Trussel said, and it’s likely Glympse will have an app for Samsung’s Tizen phones later this year.
“Looking back, [betting on Tizen] was a risk that we’re glad we took,” he said.
Now Samsung just needs to hope Glympse is not alone.
Virtual reality 101: CNET tells you everything you need to know about VR.
CNET Magazine: Check out a sample of the stories in CNET’s newsstand edition.