Google has become the number one mobile platform on the planet, and one major reason is that Samsung happens to sell more mobile handsets than any other company. When it comes to profits, Samsung divides 100% with Apple, which means losses and very tiny profits for all the rest. Google doesn’t make a huge amount of cash from Android, although I expect things will improve as more and more apps are sold in the Play Store. But not if Samsung has anything to do with it.
Google should certainly feel slighted over the fact that much of the coverage of the launch of the flagship Galaxy S4 smartphone focused on Samsung’s own apps and the revised hardware specs. You’d hardly know the thing uses the Android OS on the basis of the manufacturer’s advertising and promotion. Rather than showcase the value of Android, Samsung is showcasing the value of their own ecosystem.
To add insult to injury, Samsung plans to award third-party developers to entice them to develop Galaxy-specific apps. Not just Android apps, but apps optimized for Samsung’s hardware and custom features. Indeed they are investing $800,000 to be divided among the top ten winners for apps that are compatible with the company’s Group Play sharing feature. The first prize winner will get $200,000. And, indeed, developers would have to support Samsung’s proprietary Chord SDK service.
But there is one condition that may be the deal breaker: The apps must be free, although in-app purchases will be allowed. I suppose this means that the developer can offer a free, limited version of an app, and hope to entice customers to get the “Pro” or full-featured version. This is commonplace in the Android universe, so I suppose it comes as no surprise. But such apps might not be attractive enough to earn a prize.
It’s a sure thing that improving the quality of Android apps is a good thing. In terms of the numbers of apps, Google and Apple are toe-to-toe, but the iOS offers better quality software. The Google Play Store is polluted with loads and loads of ringtones and wallpapers, and apps that are available in multiple versions, with different themes, often requiring an upgrade to a paid version to kill the ads and/or add additional features.
One particularly irksome problem in Android-land is fragmentation. A huge number of owners of Android gear are using older, sometimes much older, versions of the OS. This complicates the job for developers who want to take advantage of the latest and greatest OS features, but still want to reach as many potential customers as possible for paid software. Compromises often have to be made, which is why many Android apps are flaky, poorly designed.
Building apps for a single product lineup for a single manufacturer may ensure consistency, but it doesn’t mean this scheme will help build a huge library of Galaxy-optimized paid apps for the simple reason that this contest only impacts developers who are building free stuff. However, I suppose a developer could hope that attention drawn to a prize-winning app will help sell others.
At least, users might feel more comfortable that the apps they download will be designed and optimized for their Galaxy handsets, which would be a good thing from Samsung’s standpoint. But it’s hardly going to help the Android ecosystem, unless those developers also produce versions that work with other handsets, or can somehow build universal versions, with much larger file sizes.
By pushing proprietary apps and features, Samsung appears to be working overtime to separate their gear from Android. If a Galaxy-specific software market develops, what stops Samsung from forking Android and rolling as many of these apps as possible into their own proprietary storefront? If that happens, where does that leave Google?
Would Google, in turn, focus more efforts on building out the Motorola Mobility division to manufacture top-of-the-line Android gear? Or would they attempt to push more support and development resources into less-successful companies, such as HTC and LG?
From Samsung’s point of view, if they continue to show good profits and growing sales, particularly for high-end mobile handsets and tablets, it’s a win-win. It doesn’t matter where Google fits in, or even if they fit into this marketing plan.
The real question, however, is whether the possibility of winning up to $200,000 will attract a meaningful response from developers. This isn’t the first time Samsung has waved thick wads of cash before developers to build stuff for their products. According to published reports, in 2010 Samsung invested $2.7 million to attract developer interest to their Bada platform, designed for cheaper handsets, but that didn’t seem to go anywhere.
It’s hard to know whether Samsung’s newest marketing ploy will pay off. It’s also true that, despite heavy-duty publicity, the top-of-the-line Galaxy S4 has mostly received modest reviews. My own evaluation of the product so far indicates that it works quite well, with a brighter display that’s particularly helpful in sunlit surroundings. But the software bloat is cause for concern, and not all the apps Samsung packed into the thing are really worth the bother.
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