Galaxy S4: Samsung's so far ahead in the Android race, should it start worrying?

Summary:Samsung is the unchallenged king of Android handsets. So where can it go next?

As it prepares to launch its next flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S4 , Samsung stands as the dominant player in the Android market.

The South Korean company accounts for 42.5 percent of Android sales; its nearest competitor has just six percent of the market.

It ended 2012 as number one in both worldwide smartphone sales and overall mobile phone sales according to analyst Gartner. Assuming Samsung makes a successful launch of the Galaxy S4, its lead in the Android smartphone market may even be extended further.

Along with the is-or-isn't-it-a-phablet Galaxy S4, Samsung also has the Android-powered Note line as well as Chromebooks, and as Larry Dignan points out, is building a strategy around "connecting the screens of your life".

While Samsung is certainly aiming at the iPhone with the launching the Galaxy S4 — holding the event in New York is symbolically bringing the smartphone battle to Apple's home turf — Apple is not the only tech giant that Samsung has to think about.

Because, while Samsung is increasingly seen as the Android smartphone company, the software platform is Google's. And the question is whether Samsung will want that situation to continue forever.

Already this has led to fears within Google that the South Korean smartphone maker may "flex its muscles" to renegotiate the pair's commercial terms, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Does success need an ecosystem?

While Samsung continues to grow its smartphone sales, it's undermining its own position in the broader ecosystem by providing Google a huge mobile platform from which to influence consumers, application developers and advertisers, according to Tony Cripps, device analyst at researchers Ovum.

It's very difficult for Samsung to achieve a similar level of influence itself while it depends on Google to supply the software, key applications and services through Android, he said.

That's not necessarily a problem if Samsung is happy in that role. But lacking a powerful ecosystem of its own clearly positions the company lower down in the value chain than either Google or Apple, Cripps warned.

Samsung has to decide what it wants to be in the long run, he said. "Is it just the biggest provider of Android devices into the market and doing very nicely financially, or does it feel the need to increase the value of its product and its broader ecosystem by taking some kind of ownership around the software platform?"

One alternative to Android that Samsung's already considering is Tizen - an open source operating system designed to run on smartphones as well as tablets, netbooks, TVs and in-car systems .

The Tizen option

Samsung is expected to release Tizen-based handsets later this year , a move seen by many as a hedge against over-reliance on Android. Other Tizen supporters include Intel, Vodafone, Orange, Sprint and Huawei.

"Tizen is strategically very important to Samsung because the success or otherwise of that platform in the market is going determine to a greater or lesser extent which way Samsung is able to go in the future," said Cripps.

Using Tizen in a future high-profile phone could offer differentiation that is harder to attain with Android (although part of Samsung's success has been in building interesting or useful tools on top of the OS).

But, if Samsung is to take on Tizen, its adoption must come on a large scale. "It needs to be if Tizen is going to make the crossover from being a niche platform to one where it can make inroads against the big guys," Cripps said.

The smartphone market however is much more crowded than it was few years ago - and, as Nokia and BlackBerry have found, trying to get critical mass behind a minority ecosystem can take a lot of time and money with little guarantee of success. As such, as long as Samsung's dominance of Android remains unchallenged, it is unlikely to be tempted to push for radical change.

Right now, it isn't seeing a huge threat from the other Android players such as HTC (although Jason Hiner sees the competition hotting up faster than I do). Similarly, Google's acquisition of Motorola hasn't delivered the wow yet - although it might do this year, which might make things a little more complicated should Google begin to pose more of a threat in hardware and start competing against its customers in a more meaningful way.

In some respects it may be that - ignoring the technology altogether - Samsung has already won the most important war; that of branding. As Gartner analyst Anshul Gupta recently pointed out the Android brand is being overshadowed by Samsung's brand "with the Galaxy name nearly a synonym for Android phones in consumers' mind share". Perhaps it's Google, not Samsung, that should be worried by Samsung's dominance of Android.

Topics: Smartphones, Android, Mobility, Samsung

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic, and has been writing about technology, business and culture for more than a decade. Previously he was the editor of silicon.com.

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