SAN FRANCISCO — Samsung's decision to drop Android in its latest wearables could have effects that ripple out to future smart watches and fit bands, according to analysts.
Samsung unveiled three new wearables -- the Gear and Gear Neo smart watches, and the Gear Fit fitness band -- at Mobile World Conference in Barcelona this week. Unlike its previous generation smart watch, this year's products will not run the Android operating system. The Fit will use a real-time operating system while Gear and Gear Neo will operate on the Tizen OS, a Linux-based system Samsung, Intel, and others launched in 2011 as an alternative to Android.
Samsung Gear and Gear Fit smart watches.
"Originally, Samsung was talking about announcing a Tizen phone, which would have some serious effect on the market," Gartner vice president Martin Reynolds told EE Times. "But it's so established in that device that this isn't a business it can risk. Wearables are a reasonable place to put Tizen; they can do some optimizing in the OS for smaller devices."
Tizen is a Linux-based cousin of Android and has some distinct advantages as a simpler OS, including longer battery life. Additionally, wearables often have a set range of functions, and the OS doesn't need to manage as many complex applications. Reynolds added that developers won't find it difficult to write for Tizen, and Samsung said it would open its Gear SDK to developers.
Samsung will not release its real-time OS to developers. The operating system is so basic that there is no allowance for an app ecosystem anyway. Instead, CNET reported, Samsung will have to customize Fit apps in-house or work closely with developers to release apps.
"What Samsung has done is exactly right. RTOS will remain 'exotic' and rare to all but the most determined initial developers beyond Samsung. If all goes well, some Android apps will be ported to Tizen and eventually their essential elements to RTOS," Richard Doherty, director of consulting firm Envisioneering Group, told EE Times. "It's really in the hands of third-party developers in terms of what happens between now and the next trade show."
Over the next couple years, Doherty expects to see an increasing amount of code translator tools that will allow developers to build for Samsung Android, Tizen and Samsung RTOS devices, as well as one code source for non-Samsung Tizen devices. Success for the new OSs will be based in part on the time it takes to develop applications for them. If Samsung's new products get traction they could attract other wearables to adopt the OSs.
"We may see a tremendous shift in resources over the next few months and developers eager to make more money than they're making at Android right now may be walking away from Android to concentrate on Tizen," Doherty said. On the other hand, "They may find out that the barrier to entry is so high that only Samsung can do apps," he said.
While Doherty said it's too early to determine which operating system will likely dominate the wearable market, Reynolds puts less weight on the subject entirely.
"I think Samsung is making the point that they have something other than Android... I don't think there's any particular breakthrough or shifts here," Reynolds said. "When it comes to wearables it doesn't matter that much what the OS is, because we're not expecting broad range of applications on the device. It's the overall system integration that matters."
Increasing wearables will require more sophisticated chips, the analysts said. Samsung has already developed custom processors with high power and low battery life. With increased processing power, Doherty said, the next generation of Samsung wearables won't be subject to the same criticism of the first generation Gear.
"The original Galaxy Gear depended almost totally on a mobile phone for its intelligence; sort of a mother ship and motor launch," he said. "The next generation will put more intelligence into devices and some may never need to talk to a phone. We'll see more and more where [wearables] have just enough intelligence, processor, and speed for their job."
— Jessica Lipsky, Associate Editor, EE Times