By Erik Heinrich
The first contender for shaking up the world's $341.4-billion mobile handset market is the China Operating System (COS), developed jointly by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and private-sector partner Liantong Network Communications Technology.
The second up-and-comer with similarly large ambitions is Tizen, developed by South Korean electronics giant Samsung with a consortium of partners that includes U.S. microchip giant Intel (INTC), Japan's Fujitsu, China's Huawei, and European mobile carrier Vodafone (VOD). Samsung not only wants Tizen to become as big a brand name as Google's Android and Apple's iOS, it also wants to see its software used in cars, smart appliances, and televisions.
Both COS and Tizen will likely be released in the second quarter; China Telecom and China Mobile are currently testing the COS platform, and Samsung recently launched a Tizen digital camera in South Korea.
American companies have a near-monopoly over the software that powers mobile communication. Do the two Asian entrants have what it takes to mount a full-frontal assault on their dominance? COS and Tizen have the potential to deliver a serious blow to the fortunes of both Android and iOS -- despite the fact that these two global monsters have a seemingly unshakeable lock on 96% of the market.
Google's Android is particularly vulnerable to a competing OS because it's used by a long list of original equipment manufacturers who could drop Android like a hot potato if a better OS comes along.
Consider that five out of the top seven smartphones sold in China are made by Chinese companies: Lenovo, Huawei, Yulong, Xiaomi, and ZTE. If they were all to switch from Android to COS -- say, with a little persuasion from the Chinese government on grounds of national security -- then Android could be shut out of one of the world's biggest wireless markets virtually overnight.
Still, conquering China will be an uphill battle. "Some of the vendors may do one or two devices if pressured by the government," says Sandy Shen, research director in Gartner's Shanghai office, "but they cannot afford to lose market share or suffer losses only to support the Chinese OS."
Analysts also question the capabilities of Shanghai-based Liantong Network Communications, which led development of the Linux-based COS. "It was established in 2012 with less than 150 people," says Gene Cao, a senior analyst with Forrester Research in Beijing. "It takes time for a new OS to improve stability, which normally needs hundreds of version updates like Android."
Meanwhile Samsung's strategic advantage is that fact that it makes 63% of all Android-powered smartphones and tablets on the market today. If it were to put its full weight behind Tizen, Google stands to lose more than half its Android customers.
"I don't think Samsung will abandon Android in favor of Tizen because its flagship Galaxy smartphones are practically equated with Android," says Ramon Llamas, research manager with IDC's mobile phone team in Framingham, Mass. "To switch them over to Tizen, or any other operating system, risks alienating its core user base. I expect Samsung to offer Tizen-powered smartphones alongside its Android-powered ones."
It's possible that analysts underestimate the raw ambition of the Asian newcomers. For example, the group behind COS claims to have fixed many bugs in the original Linux kernel, including security risks that render foreign-made operating systems like Android vulnerable to surveillance and data theft. With the new enhancements, and an online app store in development, COS is betting it can become the OS of choice for Chinese home computers and smartphones.
Samsung has even more ambitious plans for Tizen. In addition to using it across all its consumer electronics, including wearable devices, the company is talking to Toyota and Jaguar Land Rover about bringing Tizen to automobiles. It also wants Tizen to become the OS of choice in emerging markets, like India and Indonesia, where demand for cheaper smartphones has exploded.
There will be winners and losers in the showdown for world domination coming to mobile computing. It's America vs. Asia -- and the stakes could not be higher.
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