AH Primetime: Samsung's Software Slipup

Samsung is a business under pressure. The South Korean conglomerate sells a huge number of products from semiconductor chips in smartphones and tablets through to refrigerators, television sets and ships. The business has considerable manufacturing capacity and a large marketing budget, such that the brand Samsung seems to be almost everywhere. Everywhere, that is, apart from on non-Samsung devices' screens. Samsung has an underdeveloped software side of things and this has been a popular criticism of the recent flagship Samsung Galaxy smartphones: love the hardware, don't like the software. To some minds, the release of Samsung's Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition smartphone was a great idea and spurred a number of other manufacturers to do the same thing. Too bad there wasn't a Galaxy S6 Google Play Edition.

We've seen Samsung release many new software features and services only for them to be quietly removed after a time, or perhaps worse, to continue to exist with some significant drawbacks. First, there's Samsung ChatON, the instant messenger client, launched into a competitive market and being compatible with a number of different platforms, similar to WhatsApp. ChatON was being pushed to cell 'phone store employees as a reason why the Galaxy S devices could be great for customers, because ChatON was a worldwide service. ChatON has been quietly removed from most markets because the service simply didn't draw enough users. ChatON was seen as another "also ran" in a competitive instant messenger world, and as a means to try to get people interested in the latest flagship Galaxy S device. The Samsung Milk Video service has been closed down, again the service was seen as a reason why to buy the Galaxy S.

Samsung KNOX security, the Samsung SmartThings platform and Samsung Pay are seen as examples of how Samsung may be changing, but it's too soon to say. Samsung Pay is a particularly good example of how Samsung's executives are gluing the service to the hardware. Samsung Pay is a mobile payment system built upon conventional strip technology, using existing infrastructure. It could be readily adopted across the world and it's true that Samsung are working on expanding the regions and banks compatible with the system. However, it's being used as a means to sell the hardware because only a small number of Samsung Galaxy Android-powered devices can use the software. Samsung are betting that flagship device customers who start to use Samsung Pay in 2015 will switch to a newer Samsung device in 2017 when their two year plan is up for renewal because they will get to keep using Samsung Pay. I am not so sure.

We've seen disquiet within Samsung, too. An individual quoted by Reuters said, "There's a lot of distrust of top executives who can actually implement stuff that is more of a software and services offering. It's still 'we know how to sell boxes, we sell boxes'." There is confusion from within Samsung with different divisions working towards similar projects, which causes internal competition. Competition can be a good thing, but duplication of efforts is not so much. One former employee said: "Samsung's upper management just inherently doesn't understand software. They get hardware - in fact, they get hardware better than anyone else. But software is a completely different ballgame." Samsung announced earlier in the year that they would be releasing monthly software security patch updates for their devices, following Google's announcement in the summer, but to date have disappointed in this regard.

One of Samsung's problems in the smartphone industry is that the Galaxy range of smartphones have enjoyed strong growth thanks to their Android-based operating system, which makes it easy for customers to move to another manufacturer. Customers are trying cheaper devices, often from the Chinese manufacturers, and finding that they are "good enough." Competitor businesses have seen how Samsung has grown its business and are trying things a similar way - we've seen a raft of rumors that other businesses are working on developing their own chipsets such as Xiaomi and ZTE, partially because Apple and Samsung have made this trend work very well for them. As the rest of the market catches up, people realise that when an unlocked Android smartphone costing under $200 is for many people as good as a Samsung-branded device costing $700, some people are going to save that $500.

I'm going to move the article across and take a look at BlackBerry now. BlackBerry, the Canadian smartphone and software provider, has struggled to sell devices into a competitive market. It has moved from a clunky, legacy operating system based on JAVA to a brand new and technically very competent BlackBerry 10 operating system, but having found that this has not sold so well has very recently released its first Android-powered device. Meanwhile, BlackBerry is reinventing itself as a specialised software security company. It has been a painful half decade for BlackBerry, watching quarter after quarter of falling device sales and losses, but there are signs that these difficulties are drawing to a close. The business has worked with a number of other technology companies including Google, typically behind the scenes, but a quick look at the first Android-powered BlackBerry device shows that not only have BlackBerry released their take on an Android device, complete with hardware keyboard, but they have developed their own Android software and kept it updated. BlackBerry, with their first Android device, have managed to update the core operating system before Google pushed out updates to the Nexus family, where Samsung, with their plethora of devices and armies of engineers, have failed. Yes; this is BlackBerry's first and only device so we do need to see how efficient their team is this time next year, or in 2017, when we hope there are more Android BlackBerry smartphones released.

Samsung is still a world leader in smartphones and components, but its software lags. Perhaps the change in the Mobile division leadership will spark a change of mindset within Samsung, but just as an oil tanker is reputed to take a few miles to turn around, so perhaps Samsung's sheer size means it will continue to struggle for some time. Meanwhile, I can dream of BlackBerry being tasked with building the Android operating system for Samsung's next Galaxy S flagship device.

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About the Author

David Steele

Senior Staff Writer
I grew up with 8-bit computers and moved into PDAs in my professional life, using a number of devices from early Windows CE clamshells and later. Today, my main devices are a Nexus 5X, a Sony Xperia Z Tablet and a coffee cup.
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