Tizen Smartwatches Tip Samsung’s Ecosystem-First Strategy


The long wait for a major Tizen OS device is finally over, and it’s a…smartwatch? At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, Samsung skipped the unveiling of its first Tizen smartphone, and instead rolled out two Tizen-based wrist computers: the Gear 2 and Gear Neo. Due to ship in April, the devices are lighter and more stylish than Samsung’s Android-based Galaxy Gear.

Samsung NeoThe Gear 2 and Gear Neo will ship with 100 Tizen apps, mostly ported over from the first generation Galaxy Gear, and an open SDK is available to make more. Also at MWC, the Tizen Project announced winners of the Tizen App Challenge (see farther below).

The two watches can also act as standalone Bluetooth music players and cameras, but they are primarily billed as Bluetooth companion devices to other mobile devices. In fact, as with the Galaxy Gear, they’re restricted to syncing up with Samsung devices. While that still gives Samsung a huge market — the company just announced it has sold over 200 million Galaxy S phones alone since their 2010 launch — millions of Android and iOS users are left out of the picture.

Otherwise, there’s a lot to like here, assuming the price is right. The new phones are more stylish than the original. The Gear 2 sheds five grams off the original, weighing in at 68 grams, while the Gear Neo slims down to 55 grams. The main difference is the Gear 2’s metal enclosure and removable leather strap, compared to the Neo’s lighter plastic design.

Like the Galaxy Gear, the Gear 2 and Gear Neo offer a 1.63-inch Super AMOLED screen with 320 x 320-pixel resolution. However, they move to a faster 1GHz, dual-core processor, once again with 512MB RAM and 4GB flash. The watches provide Bluetooth 4.0 with headset and speaker support, as well as a 2-megapixel camera capable of 720p video. An IR blaster works with Samsung’s WatchOn app for controlling TVs.

Fitness features include a heart rate sensor, pedometer, accelerometer, gyroscope, and apps for running, walking, cycling, hiking, sleep, and stress monitoring. The devices add IP67 water and dust protection, and Samsung Gear Fitthe 300mAh battery is said to last longer: typically 2-3 days, or up to six days with low usage.

Announced alongside the Gear 2 and Gear Neo, the bendable screen Gear Fit, which runs on a real-time operating system, has only a fitness oriented subset of the apps available on the other two watches. The device is notable for its curved, 1.84-inch Super AMOLED screen, with 432 x 128 resolution. The 27-gram, IP67 protected device can last 3-5 days, and offers Bluetooth and a heart monitor.

Hands-on reports from MWC suggest the Gear Fit could be the most popular of the trio. Not only does it have the flexible screen, but it’s one of the most attractive smartwatches around and is more capable than other fitness band devices like the Fitbit or Nike Fuel Band.

Tizen phone watch continues

Two and a half years after the Tizen project was launched, Samsung’s Tizen phones were shown at MWC, according to the Wall Street Journal — but only behind closed doors. Samsung execs told the Journal that Tizen phones “could” still arrive this year, and CNET quoted Young-hee Lee, Samsung’s head of mobile marketing, as saying, “We are carefully evaluating the market needs and opportunity to introduce the Tizen-based smartphone during this year.”

Based in part on the smartphone-focused LiMo Foundation stack and Samsung’s earlier Bada OS, Tizen has principally been a smartphone project. Yet the first Tizen devices have been a development tablet from Systena , a Samsung NX300M camera, a Samsung refrigerator computer, and a Nexcom VTC 1010-IVI system.

Intel and Samsung are Tizen’s major backers, but Samsung has been the driving force for phones, or as Intel President Renee James told CNET, “They have always been the productizer.” Still, like the MeeGo project it grew out of, the Linux Foundation-hosted open source project also has sub-projects for tablets, netbooks, smart TVs, and in-vehicle infotainment (IVI). No doubt a wearables category is coming soon.

Smartwatches avoid the biggest obstacle to a successful Tizen phone launch: the lack of apps. While the Tizen hardware and OS appear solid, Samsung wants to avoid repeating the mistakes of Palm, which launched its first WebOS-based Pre phone without a competitive app library.

Samsung has already faced a few setbacks with Tizen, though the reasons are unclear. Japanese mobile provider NTT DoCoMo last month announced it was indefinitely postponing its Tizen launch. Shortly afterward Orange and Vodafone postponed their own MWC Tizen events.

Tizen App Challenge Winners announced

Samsung and the Tizen Project have tackled the app gap with a very lucrative Tizen App Challenge. On Feb. 23, the Challenge announced 54 winners of $4.04 million in prizes.

Grand prize winners earning $120,000 to $200,000 each include Silesia Games, Kidalang, Idealdimension, Laveena Samar, Loud Crow Interactive, Michal Łuszczuk, Fluid Interaction, Maciej Różański, and ProExe. Submissions were evenly split between native Tizen apps and HTML5 apps. Yet, most of the grand prize winners used the more capable native tools.

Over the last year, Samsung has been pushing HTML5 as the preferred Tizen platform, hoping that ported web apps will help accelerate app creation. By waiting another year to launch a phone, the apps could fill in nicely. Tizen may also benefit from the growing popularity of Mozilla’s HTML5-only Firefox OS, which made the biggest splash of any of the mobile Linux platforms at MWC. Apps developed for Firefox OS should be fairly easily portable to Tizen.

Yet, if Samsung waits too long, the market could decide there’s room for only one mobile OS upstart, a dilemma that also faces Ubuntu. Being the biggest mobile device manufacturer on the planet certainly helps, however.

Meanwhile, expect more Tizen-based devices, says the WSJ, which speculates that Samsung is moving to an ecosystem-first strategy. The more devices a Tizen phone can seamlessly interact with, the better chance it has for success. And with smartwatches, Samsung doesn’t have to worry about cannibalizing its popular Android devices, including its newly announced Galaxy S 5. 

If nothing else, the jump to smartwatches, cameras, and refrigerators, shows that Tizen can be just as flexible as the Gear Fit. The same could be said for other mobile Linux open source platforms. For example, LG has revamped WebOS for its smart TVs and digital signage systems. Firefox OS is making its way into a Panasonic smart TV and Via mini-PC. Proprietary platforms don’t change shape quite so easily.

Correction: The Gear Fit does not run Tizen.