Samsung’s software sea change

Samsung’s New Year’s Resolution

lee kun-hee

It’s a tradition at chaebols — Korean conglomerates — to hold ceremonies at the start of the calendar New Year, complete with speeches by top executives. At Samsung, one of the speeches was given by company Chairman Lee Kun-hee (pictured on the right), a man who’s not afraid to break with “but that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking. A quote he made two decades ago still gets repeated in Korea: he once told Samsung employees and execs that they needed to “change everything except for your wife and children”.

In this year’s speech, Lee stressed the importance of R & D, saying that Samsung needs to “get rid of business models and strategies from five, ten years ago and hardware-focused ways.”

Samsung and Software

While Samsung have been quite good at making hardware — even Apple’s been buying from them — anyone who’s dealt with TouchWiz or any of the “S” apps (the “S” stands for Samsung, but some people have suggested a shorter “S” word is equally appropriate) knows that software isn’t their strong suit. They’ve been working at it, from the infamous “iPhone copycat doc”, featuring an internal review of user experience ideas they should borrow from the iPhone

…to “Magazine UX”, the new user interface they unveiled for upcoming tablets at CES:

magazine ux at ces

Click the photo to see it at full size.

Here’s a closer-up shot of Magazine UX:

magazine ux close up

Click the photo to see it at full size.

Here’s Rappler’s hands-on video with Magazine UX:

For those people who says that Samsung’s software is always derivative of others’, Magazine UX just provides more evidence. It looks like a hybrid of Flipboard and Microsoft’s “Modern UI”, the UI formerly known as Metro. Here’s Phonedog’s side-by-side comparison of Magazine UX and Modern UI, and the similarities are a bit too close for comfort:

magazine ux vs modern ui

Samsung’s Magazine UX (top) and Microsoft’s Modern UI (bottom).
Graphic by Phonedog. Click the photo to see the source.

Samsung didn’t seem all too bothered by the pundits’ remarks about the similarities. Shoneel Kolhatkar, Samsung’s Senior Director of Product Planning is quoted as saying “I don’t think it matters [that it looks like Windows]. As long as consumers like it, they can compare it to Windows or compare it to something else.”

A New Understanding with Google

nexus-style s4 at google io

Samsung’s Galaxy S4 with the standard “Nexus” user experience presented at Google’s I/O conference. The shape of Samsung smartphone user experiences to come?

Samsung went “all in” with Android as the operating system for its smartphones in 2009, and it’s paid off in spades. Of the billion smartphones that were shipped in 2013, 320 million — one in three — were Samsungs. Samsung’s mobile devices, most of which are Android-powered, made up for more than half of its 2013 revenue. This sort of dependence on an outside vendor’s software probably worries Samsung’s top brass, hence the call from their chairman to do more R & D and go beyond just hardware. Samsung even has a plan B in their own flavor of the open mobile OS, Tizen (which, like a lot of Samsung software, needs work).

There’s also some discomfort on Google’s side of the relationship, what with being so dependent on a single hardware manufacturer dominating the Android landscape and making their own tweaks to suit their own particular needs rather than those of the Android ecosystem in general. Part of Google’s acquisition of Motorola’s mobile group in 2012 was to create a reference platform for other Android phone vendors to follow, in the same spirit as Microsoft with Surface for tablets and Nokia for phones.

By selling Motorola to Lenovo, Google returns to the position of being a neutral software partner rather than a hardware competitor for Samsung. This overture is one olive branch in a bundle, which includes the sharing of patents between Google and Samsung, both past and future, and an agreement by Samsung to ease up on its own UI tweaks and “bloatware” additions to Android in favour of the better-designed, better-thought-out, better-integrated Android standards. Under this new understanding, Magazine UX will either be very short-lived or will never see the light of day.

It also means that Samsung may have to break their new year’s resolution. And it’s still January!

this article also appears in the GSG blog