Ever since Samsung emerged first as the dominant global seller of Android phones in 2010, and then as the world's largest seller of smartphones (in 2012, the South Korean electronics giant has been seen as a threat to Google, which licenses its open source mobile OS to Samsung and several other manufacturers.
There are three basic "Samsung threat" scenarios:
- Samsung becomes so dominant in the Android world that it eventually hijacks Android from Google.
- Samsung will abandon Android in favor of its own mobile OS, Tizen, which it developed with Intel.
- Samsung is already on the decline and will take Android down with it.
Let's take a look at these scenarios one by one and assess how realistic each might be:
Samsung hijacks Android from Google
Samsung ships about two-thirds of all Android devices sold around the world. With that kind of leverage, the thinking goes, Samsung could demand better Android licensing terms from Google, which benefits hugely from the ads, services and products delivered to millions of Samsung smartphone owners. Failing that, Samsung could simply fork Android, as Amazon did with its Fire OS that runs its Fire Phone and Kindle Fire line of tablets.
But Samsung has dominated the Android market for more than two years and has neither strong-armed Google for a better deal nor developed its own version of Android. And at this point it's not going to because it appears Samsung's overall market share is now receding.
While still the global leader in smartphone shipments, Samsung's share of the market fell to 25.2% in the second quarter from 32.3% in the year-ago quarter, according to IDC.
Further, Samsung in July reported a decline in revenue and earnings, the result of intense competition and much lower margins in the low end of the smartphone market and Apple's continued strength in the high end, where the iPhone 5S has been outselling the much newer Galaxy S5. Samsung's dominance of the Android market may have peaked in 2013 with the Galaxy S4, so its window of opportunity for leveraging its power may have passed.
Sure, Samsung can still fork Android, but it won't because it's committing to its own mobile OS.
Samsung's Tizen will compete with Android
Under this scenario, Samsung rolls out the Tizen mobile OS and uses its brand strength, manufacturing capacity and marketing to carve out a respectable market share at the expense of Android (and iOS).
Which already has happened. Samsung released a Tizen-powered wearable -- the Gear 2 smartwatch -- in April, followed by the announcement of the Samsung Z, a Tizen-based smartphone slated to be sold initially in Russia this fall.
The reason given for the delay was that Samsung wanted more time to "enhance the Tizen ecosystem." In other words, the issue isn't the phone -- the hardware -- it's the platform. Reading between the lines (and applying a little common sense), it's clear that there aren't enough apps for Tizen to make it attractive to consumers. Apparently the Samsung brand doesn't carry much weight with developers.
Which doesn't mean Samsung won't sell Tizen phones. It will, but they're more likely to be low end, where competition is fierce and margins are razor thin. Given that Microsoft and BlackBerry have been at the smartphone game for a little while now and share about 5% of the market between them, it's not likely that Samsung's Tizen ambitions are keeping Google executives up at night.
Samsung could take down Android with it
This is a scenario suggested recently by The Motley Fool. Not only did Samsung report sharply declining revenue and profits in the second quarter, the company warned that more tough times are ahead. "It is difficult to expect earnings to improve from the second quarter," Samsung senior vice president Kim Hyun-joon said in a conference call following the Q2 earnings release.
Meanwhile, other Android manufacturers such as HTC and LG rebounded in the second quarter, hinting at a slow shift in the market in favor of Samsung competitors.
Which is why Samsung's declining fortunes -- assuming they continue -- shouldn't have a lasting impact on Google or Android, any more than the market rise and fall of numerous PC manufacturers affected Microsoft, which didn't care whether Gateway, Dell, or HP sold Windows computers as long as consumers bought them.
Samsung may not dominate the smartphone market forever. But Android will be a lot harder to dislodge.