Samsung's disjointed OS strategy poses a hurdle for users

Samsung's new Galaxy Books provide a glimpse into the messy strategy of using Windows, Android and Tizen on different devices

Samsung's Windows-based Galaxy Books, unveiled Sunday at Mobile World Congress, point to a critical weakness in the company's multiple-OS strategy.

The company uses Windows 10 in PCs, Android in smartphones, and Tizen across wearables and smart appliances. This has led to a lack of coherence among Samsung devices, in contrast to the near-seamless product integration that has fueled Apple's success as the world's most valued company.

The specific issues with the Galaxy Books are relatively small, but are nevertheless symptoms of the larger problem: walls among devices and an inconsistent user experience across the company's product line. The lack of a broad app ecosystem for Samsung devices has not helped.

Samsung has taken a siloed approach to product development, said Werner Goertz, lead Samsung analyst at Gartner. The strategy is deeply rooted in the company's flawed organizational structure, in which divisions often compete instead of cooperating, producing products that don't work the same way.

Unlike at Apple, Goertz said, "there is a lack of coherence, consistency, and a comprehensive user experience. Over time it'll be important to have a consistent user experience."

The new Galaxy Books, for example, highlight the lack of unity in the company's VR strategy. Samsung's Gear VR headset works with some Android Galaxy handsets, but the company has no Windows-based VR device that connects to the new Galaxy Books.

Samsung declined to comment on whether it is developing a VR headset for its Windows devices. But the company's goals appear to include the development of a multipurpose headset that could work with Windows as well as Android devices, and possibly a separate, untethered headset.

"Directionally we're absolutely looking at ways that VR can operate and function independent of the smartphone, which opens the doors for a number of different avenues in terms of what types of devices you could connect that to," said Eric McCarty, vice president of mobile product marketing for Samsung Electronics America.

Until that time, Samsung will continue updating its existing VR headsets, which are mainly limited to Android devices.

"What you'll continue to see near-term is backwards compatibility to previous handheld phones as we update those VR headsets in order to provide more and more functionality," McCarty said.

Another consideration: Galaxy Books can link up to Android-based Galaxy smartphones with a feature called Samsung Flow, but can't talk to Tizen devices like smartwatches. In addition, while Galaxy smartphones can be used to log in to and directly exchange calendar information with Galaxy Books, information on Tizen devices gets to Samsung's Windows-based devices only through Galaxy smartphones.

To be fair, Samsung has embarked on a variety of projects that aim to deploy homegrown technology across multiple OSes. S-Pen technology, which was originally rolled out in Samsung's Android devices, is now being applied to Windows PCs like Galaxy Book. It's an alternative to Microsoft's Windows Ink, which is integrated into Windows 10.

But looking beyond the Galaxy Book, there are bigger problems in Samsung's multi-OS strategy. Samsung wants to connect its home appliances to mobile and other computing devices, but doesn't have a homegrown voice assistant or artificial intelligence technology. Samsung relies on Google Assistant in Android devices and Microsoft's Cortana for Windows products -- and the two virtual assistants offer completely different user experiences.

In addition, Samsung hasn't yet integrated technologies like SmartThings -- an open platform to run smart homes -- into devices. Samsung last year acquired Viv Labs to bring artificial intelligence to its devices, but it hasn't yet been deployed. 

Samsung's commitment to Google Assistant leaves Viv out in the cold. Samsung could use Viv for intelligent search and discovery on devices, which is something Google Assistant does not really do, said Richard Windsor, an analyst at Edison Investment Research, in a December research note.

Meanwhile, Samsung is rumored to be developing a voice assistant technology called Bixby, which could go into the upcoming Galaxy S8 smartphone. If it comes to fruition, it's the kind of technology that could put Samsung on the right path, said Bob O'Donnell, principal analyst at Technalysis Research.

There are various ways the company could get its product lines to work well with each other, O'Donnell said.

One solution would be to build a sort of "meta-OS" sitting on top of Samsung's Android, Windows and Tizen devices that becomes a center of interaction, O'Donnell said. Such an OS could be cloud-based.

A voice-controlled virtual assistant that works with its various product lines would be another unifying technology, O'Donnell said. "They are working on it and busy with it," O'Donnell said.

Other companies, like Lenovo, have a multi-OS strategy involving Windows and Android, but Samsung sells a considerably wider range of devices and appliances. If Samsung can get its act together, the company has the scale to successfully combat Apple and other competitors in the mobile market, analysts say. Samsung makes great PCs, but it doesn't rank in the top five PC makers worldwide.

Samsung business units, such as the semiconductor and display divisions, operate independently. Nevertheless, Samsung needs to offer a unifying vision for its products, delivering common functionality and an integrated experience that appeals to customers.

Until then, its product strategy will remain flawed.

"Will it be fixable in the short term? I don't think so," Goertz said. In the long run, customer pressure may force Samsung to come up with a cohesive strategy.

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