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The fuss over Samsung's Magazine UX is all about fragmentation

New Pro tablets will run customizable user interface that users can't remove -- to Google's annoyance

February 4, 2014 01:41 PM ET

Computerworld - Samsung announced Tuesday that its four newest Android KitKat tablets will include the somewhat controversial Magazine UX, a customizable user interface (UI) designed by Samsung, not Google, that runs on the home screen to give users direct access to content with a single touch.

A Samsung spokesman said that users will not have the option to turn off the Magazine UX in the new Pro series tablets, which range in screen size from 8.4-in. to 12.2-in. and in price from $399.99 to $849.99.

"Users do not have the option to 'turn off' Magazine UX," the spokesman said. "It is built into the Pro series tablets. Users can add or delete Magazine UX and standard Android screens as they wish, but at least one Magazine UX screen must be present at all times. The 'classic' home screen is standard, with the Magazine UX accompanying it. And of course, users can change this and set Magazine UX as the default."

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The Samsung Tab Pro 8.4 is one of the tablets running the Magazine UX. (Image: Samsung)

This matters, especially to Android purists, because Magazine UX's first appearance at the International CES showlast month apparently dismayed Google officials who want future Samsung devices to remain closer to true-blue Android.

Since that time, Google and Samsung unveiled a sweeping 10-year cross-license patent deal and Google announced plans to sell off its Motorola unit to Lenovo for $2.9 billion. Ousting Motorola is widely seen as pleasing to Samsung, which -- along with other third-party Android manufacturers -- saw Motorola as having early access to Android innovations.

The Samsung spokesman didn't say whether the Magazine UX will eventually disappear out of deference to Google, and sounded somewhat defiant. "To continue our momentum of delivering great user experiences and bringing greater value to people's lives, Samsung will continue to identify and provide differentiated and innovative service and content offerings on our mobile devices," he said.

Those who have seen and used the Magazine UX say it seems to have elements of Microsoft's tiled Metro tablet interface (which itself evolved from the Windows Phone UI) as well as Flipboard. Several analysts recently said they expect the Magazine UX to eventually be abandoned by Samsung to show cooperation with Google by adhering to a more pure Android in Samsung products. But the shipment of the new tablets came too soon after the patent deal and Motorola sale for Samsung to drop Magazine UX right away.

"I'm not surprised the tablets are shipping with Magazine UX [since] it's been in development for some time and was too far along to not be shipped with the devices announced today," said Jack Narcotta, an analyst at Technology Business Research.

But Narcotta quickly added: "I can't imagine Google was pleased with what they saw on Samsung's tablets at CES, given that one of the major knocks on Android is its fragmentation."

Narcotta said Magazine UX "is flashy and looks pretty" but also does represent "a departure from Google's vision for Android."

Google could not be reached to comment.

While the Magazine UX is a real, tangible thing, its appearance in the latest Samsung tablets is also highly symbolic. As such, it is a remnant of a Samsung that has taken many steps to show its products are different from either pure Android or other Android tablets on the market. Earlier innovations in that vein include Touchwiz, the Samsung UI that still runs atop of stock Android and is expected to continue for a long time. Samsung also replaced the Google Chrome browser with Samsung's default Internet browser and implemented Samsung ChatOn instead of Google Hangouts, converted Google's Voice Search into Samsung's S Voice and Google Wallet into Samsung Wallet.

In other words, Samsung has done a lot of work to look different, pure Android be damned.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, and Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insight & Strategy, both agreed with Narcotta that it was too early in the recent Google-Samsung Prague Spring to delete the Magazine UX from the Pro tablets.

What might be more telling is what Samsung does with the Magazine UX in the next device, perhaps the Galaxy S5 smartphone, which could be announced by Samsung on Feb. 24 at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

"It will be interesting to see if Magazine makes it down to the Samsung smartphones," Gold said. "Including it would be a bigger indication of 'separation' [from Google] in my opinion."

covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at Twitter @matthamblen or subscribe to Hamblen RSSMatt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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