Back in 2010, when Android’s sweet of choice was Gingerbread (version 2.3) and Apple had the iPhone 3GS as its flagship device in reinventing the pocketspace Samsung, oh Samsung, released their very first Galaxy S device, the THE Galaxy S. This phone could have been mistaken for an iPhone stupendously easily, and that happened quite a bit, and that started Apple’s crazy vague list of patents (a black-fronted, rectangular phone with ‘about-equal corner curvatures’ and icons arranged on a grid on the display). But the problem was not Apple (except it sort of was), or Samsung’s software overlay known as Touchwiz, or Google’s software styling, which pretty much looked the same as parts of Touchwiz, in menus and app iconography. The issues began to become real when Samsung continued to develop their skin, ‘their Android’, while Google kept refining and ‘purifying’ Android in its entirety. The largest and most noticeable differences between ‘versions of Android’, not in software features or numbers denoting versions, but the variants within a single software version, became apparent and painfully so when Samsung got its second whack at making the hardware for Google’s Android, Google’s Nexus device for the fall of 2011, dubbed interestingly the Google Galaxy Nexus (or Galaxy X in Brazil) and loved by the largest Android userbase up to that point in the software’s history. But the name is where the split and oddity is and can be seen, if examined.
The Google Galaxy Nexus. Google, the company, and Nexus, the idea for a pure, reference device for developers to build their applications for, then adapt them to various other takes and ‘versions of Android’. But Galaxy, Samsung’s namesake, was there too, but none of what made a Galaxy a Galaxy was to be seen. And that, the fact that there were two Google ideas to one Samsung idea, is what really began Samsung’s drastic changes to its Android and relationship with Google. In April of 2012, Samsung took the Galaxy S III to the stage for the world to see, and the world loved it. But, when kind of Android did it have? Answer: Samsung Touchwiz. You meant software version? By not looking at the settings menu and version number, you might not be able to tell in the least, thanks to Samsung’s Touchwiz overlay. Touchwiz let you toggle most of the essential settings (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, sound modes, screen rotation, mobile data, airplane mode, and data sync) from just the notification panel that came down from the top, with its bright green icons. The apps were Samsung-chic, with Galaxy this and S that everywhere to be seen and for the user to remember: “This is Samsung’s Android”.
As the Ice Cream Sandwich (Android version 4.0) design language (dark colors with holo blue highlights and accents, like that seen in the Galaxy Nexus the previous fall) was almost if not completely absent from Samsung’s Touchwiz smartphones and tablets. You actually had to go to non-Samsung (and usually Google-made) apps to find hints of holo, since Samsung had opted not to include much since it didn’t match their idea of a ‘Nature UX (user experience, that is)’ that was made for humans and inspired by nature all around us. And nature obviously didn’t have any deep blacks or bright aqua blues to show us, now did it? Samsung thought not and largely ignored holo.
Jumping forward to fall of 2012, the Nexus 4, Google’s brainchild with LG Electronics, was released, sporting some new features, but the same old blue and black design of holo, just under the Jelly Bean (Android 4.1-4.3.1) title. Samsung, in updating their Galaxy devices at the time, gave the greatest selling feature to their Android: true multi-tasking, achieved by using two apps simultaneously, in a ‘multi-window’ feature. Something worth note, too. Google has yet to even consider (from what anyone can and will say) implementing this feature, even though people absolutely love it on Samsung devices. This is where it gets odd and fast for a bit.
Android Jelly Bean lasted a long time. Early fall of 2012 to fall of 2013 (when Kit Kat, Android 4.4 was released) was Jelly Bean’s reign, and Samsung didn’t attempt to get in line with those design cues, the blacks and blues. But why! Because, it seems, they were building to something new and different. The Galaxy S IV and Note III both had their own hallmark features (air gestures above the screen and the successful rebirth of the stylus, respectively) and Google followed neither of these leads. Why? Because Google leads Nexus leads Android leads Samsung and other manufacturers, except Samsung didn’t get or read the memo on that.
Samsung had released, alongside the Galaxy Note III in the fall of 2013, a smartwatch, the first ‘real smartwatch’ with calling functions, and message viewing abilities, and a screen that was color (not black and white like the Pebble which was already a huge hit by that time), and it ran Android. It ran Samsung’s Android. It ran Touchwiz. But as 2014 dawned, we as consumers saw a change in Samsung, coming that January, shown off at CES, the annual ‘look at our new techie things’ exhibition held in Las Vegas, Nevada. Samsung showed off its new (and diverging) lines of tablets, the Note Pro and the Tab Pro (different only because the Notes came with styluses) at CES. The interface, the launcher was new. It had something to the left. Something…Touchwiz. CES is where Samsung premiered Magazine UX, a magazine-like experience that allowed browsing of social media and news sites (of the user’s choice, of course), and it was NOT Google, or Android. It was Touchwiz. It was Samsung. And Google saw that too, along with an S this or Galaxy that for almost every one of their good old services and apps, and flat out told Samsung to tone it down and knock off the knocking-off (in more professional and less obvious terms, but the same general concept). Samsung had been told to stop modifying Android so much, so where could they go? A new OS? Yeah, sure, why not! And Tizen was on the wrist, partnered with the Galaxy S5 in April, in the Gear (not the Galaxy Gear, as many reasonably assume) 2, Gear 2 Neo, and Gear Fit smartwatches. What did the OS look like? Like the Galaxy Gear from 2013. Terrifyingly like it. Almost identical, and it was a new OS entirely. Whether it was intentional or not, Samsung had been building the best mobile OS on top of another one all along, and they took that to heart, as well as Research and Development. What do we see happening next? Well, there’s the Samsung Z, a Galaxy-looking device running pure Tizen, pure Samsung. The Z runs Samsung’s Android.
Enough about the geeky side of Samsung’s evolution in and from Android, and on to the more professional side of things involving Samsung, Google, and Android. Why hasn’t Samsung sued Google, if they feel so supposedly restricted by Google’s guidelines and regulation? That’s because Google owns the software at the core of Samsung’s most popular and used Touchwiz, and ultimately is given the final say. That’s why the data arrows (the little green and orange arrows that show data flow when on mobile data networks) turned white when Samsung devices had Kit Kat; white was a requirement for the transparent status bar, which was a requirement of Kit Kat, which was a regulation and code laid out by Google.
Google has been dealing with Samsung, and vice versa, for the longest time, because both giants of Android were around when Android took its first steps inside the HTC Dream (or G1). But why hasn’t Samsung just told Google “Keep your Android, we’ve got our own” and made Tizen like they made Touchwiz (that is, feature-packed and superbly popular)? Because, quite simply, Samsung can’t. Google has partnerships or owns many different types of services and companies, from fleets of camera-ridden cars for mapping Earth from the street corner to making the Internet show you what you want before you finish typing it out. Samsung isn’t enough of a company, that is, it doesn’t have enough variations, enough different aspects and types of services and capabilities, to completely ignore and leave Google in their past. Also, it would hurt them as a company (as it has recently) with revenues dropping as sales are comparably worse than previous quarters. This next quarter will, if the trend continues, be the worst in two years, as well as being the third consecutive quarter to hold that title.
Samsung could make hardware that leaves everyone in the dirt, blinking and confused, but they still need Android, Google’s Android, to make the rest of their power and device come together, to sell it to the customer. And what of the two giants, will they truly ever fight, in a court or in press releases plain enough for a student to understand, to flex their muscles enough to upset the fragile relationship between them, like handcuffs made out of daisy-chains. The answer will likely come in the next two years, whether Samsung will actually be able to rely on Tizen and Touchwiz alone, Android-free, as Samsung apparently deeply desires itself to be. Samsung will make some move, whether it be in line with Google, backing the search giant’s ideas and Android, or in favor of stepping off the trolley, to turn down an alley that takes them to the part of the city the trolley doesn’t go to for a reason. What that move is and what the reason nobody goes to that part of the city are yet to be seen, explained, or become obvious yet, but one single thing is for certain: Samsung will move.