The rise of Tizen: A new competitor in the mobile market segment

Tizen, the mobile OS developed by Samsung and the Linux Foundation, appears to be heading towards an initial device offering for consumers.


There are numerous players in the mobile and tablet market, though that number is starting to dwindle. Android and iOS are at the front of the pack, with Windows Mobile 8 and RT in third place, and then BlackBerry BB10. Gone is LG webOS (formerly Palm, then formerly HP) as it has traded hands again and is rumored to pop up in embedded systems and smart TVs. 

Despite all of this, there are still organizations motivated enough to challenge the status quo: The Linux Foundation and the Tizen Association, which is a consortium comprised of Asian technology firms Samsung, Huawei, Fujitsu, NEC, and Panasonic; telecoms KT (Korea Telecom), SK Telecom, Orange, Vodafone, NTT docomo, and Sprint (now mostly owned by Japanese telecom SoftBank).

The name Tizen may be new, but the underlying technologies have been in development since late 2007, as LiMo (Linux Mobile), Enlightenment Foundation Library, and Samsung’s prior Bada project. Application development in Tizen is done in HTML5, and developers have a great deal of flexibility using Tizen’s fork of jQuery and jQuery Mobile from Tizen 1.x, a native application framework in 2.x, or the Enyo 2 development framework. Applications for Tizen can also run on Mozilla’s Firefox OS, Ubuntu Touch, and webOS.

In order to entice developers to write applications for Tizen, Samsung and Intel announced a contest for developers to write applications for Tizen, giving away $200,000 to the top-ranked game app and $4 million total in prizes. The contest ends December 8th, 2013.

As Tizen hardware goes, what's available has adequate specifications (compared to the entry-level specifications of Firefox OS phones), but there are more rumors than presently available hardware.

Systena's Tizen tablet

In late October, the Japanese IT firm Systena released the first Tizen tablet with a capable 10.1” 1920x1200 display, quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor clocked at 1.4 GHz, 2 GB RAM, and 32 GB Flash, with a somewhat dated front VGA camera and 2 MP rear camera, and microSD for expansion storage. Systena hasn’t announced a price, as sales are for developers only.

Tizen on Samsung Galaxy S4

Samsung has been actively maintaining a port of the Tizen 3.0 beta on their flagship Galaxy S4 phone, according to leaked photos obtained by Tizen Indonesia. According to Bloomberg, Samsung has plans to release a Tizen-based smartphone in 2013, though the early window mentioned in the article -- August or September -- has come and gone without any product announcement. Importantly, Tizen 3.0 is still in development, with Tizen 3.0 Milestone 2 expected later this year. The Galaxy S4 running Tizen is running the Tizen 3.0 branch, which lends easily to speculation that Samsung may be waiting for 3.0 to reach gold master to ship a device, rather than shipping with the stable Tizen 2.2 release.

docomo abandons Symbian, or Symbian abandons docomo

NTT docomo, the largest mobile phone network provider in Japan, was fully committed to Symbian until Nokia abandoned Symbian under the management of Stephen Elop. Consequently, NTT docomo has transitioned away from Symbian to Android. In NTT docomo’s recently announced winter lineup, all of the phones announced run Android --  there were no Symbian (or Windows Phone) offerings to be seen.

For those unfamiliar with the Japanese mobile market, NTT docomo wields an astonishing amount of control over the phones sold for use on their network -- one that carriers in the United States would be envious of. All of the smartphones in the winter lineup use docomo’s proprietary LIVE UX home screen interface, including the two offerings from Samsung, who is notorious for pushing the TouchWiz interface on all of their Android offerings in the United States.

The relationship between NTT docomo and Samsung does not end there: Samsung is also releasing the Galaxy J, a Japan-exclusive variant of the Galaxy S4, which contains 3 GB of RAM and tuners for 1Seg and NOTTV digital television services. In addition, the Galaxy J has a slightly modified industrial design from the S4 and NTT docomo branding on the front of the device.

This is far and beyond what Samsung has done to accommodate U.S. carriers for a flagship phone and suggests a deep working relationship between the two organizations. Considering that both Samsung and NTT docomo are part of the Tizen association, with Samsung being at the forefront of the Tizen push, it is entirely conceivable that NTT docomo could push toward Tizen offerings in the future -- and with their position as market leader, they could drag much of the rest of Asia along with it.

Final thoughts

In closing, I think it would be fitting to draw a parallel to the days of 16-bit home computers, the last time that there was true consumer choice between a handful of mutually incompatible ecosystems. At the time, it was a fight between the Apple Macintosh, Commodore Amiga, BeOS, and Microsoft Windows / IBM PC (among others). However, in Japan, the competition was primarily between the NEC PC-9801 series, the Sharp X68000, and Windows / IBM PC. From this historical standpoint, it's entirely plausible that Tizen could carve out a niche in the Asian technology market, yet have a low impact in Europe and the United States.