Hey Samsung: Not everybody has to be a platform

It's okay. Really.

It's easy to see why everybody wants to be a platform these days. Just look at Apple: By owning both the hardware and the operating system, it gets total control over what developers build on its platform -- and a sizable cut of the revenues besides. In return, developers get an unmatched distribution channel directly to customers' devices. As Apple extends to new devices, those developers get to come along.

So it's no wonder that Samsung, eternally defining itself by its struggles with Apple, wants to be a platform, too, especially in the face of shrinking profits. On paper, it seems so simple: Samsung has the hardware business. It's making some wearables, investing in a connected home business with the SmartThings acquisition, and getting into virtual reality.

Open some APIs, give out some SDKs, talk about "open" and host a big-time developer conference in San Francisco (as in, the Samsung Developer Conference I write this from) to make sure everybody knows how committed you are. 

But what Samsung is lacking, what major platform providers have in spades, is something harder to pin down, and much harder to imitate. Apple, Salesforce, even Microsoft lately, have demonstrated that most vague, but most important notion. They have vision -- a clear and present mission that drives them forward, even when that path isn't immediately obvious.  

But Samsung? Samsung has really good phones and some solid tablets and a partnership with Oculus and SmartThings and now Project Beyond, a super nifty 360-degree streaming 3D high definition camera. But in the entire two-hour keynote session this morning, attendees were treated to a rapid-fire string of previously announced non-news like the Simband open health wearable platform (now open for developer sign-ups), a demo of what's possible with SmartThings and a reaffirmation that the company will keep investing in Samsung Knox, its enterprise workspace feature. 

Other than the virtual reality stuff, and the Project Beyond camera, which are actually, really, very cool, it's mostly a lot of the same old. The only "new" thing coming to Samsung devices is Samsung Flow, a me-too take on Apple's cross-device Continuity features. Other than that, the company was just trying to show developers that  products exist and can be built upon without offering a tremendously compelling case for why. It's not really leadership material. 

When Apple is selling watches, Google is selling Nest thermostats, and Microsoft is revamping Windows for the multi-device future, Samsung's follow-along mentality of "just add developers" just doesn't seem like enough, no matter how many sensors it adds to Simband. 

(The company's technical keynote takes place Thursday; maybe there'll be something more impressive that will change my mind. But I doubt it.)

The point here is that Samsung is a hardware company, in so many ways. It's succeeded in the first place by making devices that people actually want to use. And part of how it got there was by being part of somebody else's ecosystem. And yeah, it must chafe those at Samsung corporate command to have Google to thank for the success of the Galaxy S line of phones. But maybe, just maybe, throwing your support behind an operating system that nobody asked for, wants, needs or supports (Tizen)  wasn't the right answer, no matter how technologically proficient it is. 

And in the same way people ask whether Microsoft's hardware business is good for Microsoft's vision as a service provider, they have to also ask whether this whole insistence on being a software provider is good for Samsung's business. Nobody  seems excessively jazzed about developing for the Samsung-backed Tizen ecosystem in a world where Android and iOS are already pretty well standardized. 

"Ecosystem" is just a fancy word for building the stuff that users, not corporations, want. Rather than controlling everything, maybe a renewed focus on being the best part of the Android ecosystem -- and on making what customers actually want -- would do Samsung good.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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