Over the past few years, the tech press has painted the competition in the mobile-device space as fundamentally a battle between Google Android and Apple’s iOS.
This is a natural battle-line to draw, given how the respective platforms’ market-shares have created a virtual duopoly: according to recent data from research firm IDC, Android’s market-share stands at 75 percent, with iOS at 17.3 percent. The other competitors on the scene, including BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone, are basically fighting for scraps.
Those numbers are unlikely to change anytime soon. Despite the semi-regular predictions of collapse and doom on the part of Wall Street analysts, Apple simply has too much money, too many brilliant engineers and designers, and too big a partner ecosystem to implode anytime soon—indeed, iPhone sales were the bright spot of the company’s most recent quarterly earnings.
Nor is Android likely to go away, given Google’s strategy of giving it away for free to any smartphone manufacturer out there. As Android’s core software becomes more sophisticated, and its Google Play store larger, it becomes difficult for any up-and-coming mobile operating system to position itself as a viable alternative, especially if it insists on charging licensing fees to manufacturers (Windows Phone, cough, cough).
But that doesn’t mean Google can rest easy. Indeed, if current trends continue, the search-engine giant could face competition in the mobile arena from one of its own ecosystem partners: Samsung.
The idea of Samsung as a Google rival isn’t unprecedented. For the past several quarters, Samsung has progressively molded Android to its own vision: layered with TouchWiz and sprinkled with all sorts of Samsung-centric apps, the software interface on Samsung devices is deviating rapidly away from the “stock” Android that runs on other manufacturers’ devices. During this year’s unveiling of the Samsung Galaxy S4 at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, Samsung executives onstage barely mentioned the word “Android,” and played up features designed specifically for the device.
Establishing its own brand identity by moving away from “stock” Android has done Samsung a lot of good: its smartphones and tablets not only stand out from the flood of Android devices on the market, but it’s given the company an opportunity to position itself as the one true rival to iOS. While other Android manufacturers struggle, Samsung has profited.
If Samsung continues to gain strength, it could become a huge issue for Google, which has its own eye on the hardware segment. Although Google purchased Motorola in 2011 for $12.5 billion, it hasn’t yet remolded the brand in its own image, claiming that the subsidiary’s existing pipeline of products first needs to be flushed into the ecosystem. But that reluctance could be coming to an end: reports suggest that Google will pump $500 million into marketing the Moto X, an upcoming “hero” smartphone meant to reestablish Motorola’s dominance of the Android space.
If the Moto X succeeds, and Google decides to push aggressively into the branded hardware space, it could drive Samsung even further away from core Android. Never mind issuing TouchWiz updates until the original Android interface is virtually unrecognizable—with its industry heft, Samsung could potentially boot Google Play from the home-screen and substitute it with an apps-and-content hub of its own design.
That would take a lot of work, of course: first, Samsung would need to build a substantial developer ecosystem, and then it would need to score great deals with movie studios and other content providers. But as Amazon and Apple have shown, such things aren’t impossible. The only questions are whether (a) Samsung has the will to devote the necessary time and resources to such a project, and (b) if it’s willing to transform its symbiotic relationship with Google into an antagonistic one.