Tizen viewpoint – Sept 2011

I wrote this note on Tizen last September when it had just been announced. Someone I was pitching for work to, had asked me for a brief note on Tizen, and this was my submission. The recent announcement by Samsung about merging Bada with Tizen reminded me of this note and so I decided to post it here. [Having just read it again, it again showed how quickly this industry changes – what seemed so unlikely a few months ago seems one of the likeliest outcomes now.]

The Background

The Tizen project is a coming together of multiple organisations, OEMs, Intel, Linux Foundation and maybe even telecom operator, with unusually varying motives and thus has both the advantages – becoming a widely accepted industry standard – and the disadvantages – lack of ownership and direction – of any such project.

The OEMs have for some time now been in a struggle for control of industry profits and dynamics with the big three platform owners – Apple, Google & Microsoft. Till recently, Google with its open, free & independent Android was the platform of choice for these OEMs. However, all three of those qualities of Android are now in doubt thanks to Google’s pending acquisition of Motorola, Microsoft’s patent taxes and moves from Google to tighten control over development and deployment of Android.

Intel has long been trying to get a foothold in the smartphone industry, where ARM designed chip-sets dominate. With mobile OS platforms being adapted and extended to tablets, TVs and other connected devices, Intel realises that it could be left out of a huge and fast growing market catering to all possible connected devices. While MeeGo and its AppUp store may be part of its attempts to develop a complete platform, at its core Intel is fighting for relevance as the industry moves towards a low-energy, connected device environment.

For LiMo and Linux Foundation, this coming together of Intel, OEMs and, possibly, some mobile operators may present an unprecedented opportunity to promote Linux’ acceptance as a wider consumer platform. Being committed to an ‘open’ environment, Linux Foundation could also provide a neutral outlook to Tizen by ensuring no single promoter could lock-in the platform to its own proprietary technology.

On the technical side, the development and widespread acceptance of HTML5 standards opens up another opportunity for a new platform. When combined with the Linux core of LiMo or MeeGo, HTML5 obviates the need for an advanced set of proprietary tools to enable app development while allowing for quick porting of applications from established OS platforms. This had been a handicap for both LiMo and MeeGo with the requirement of native apps and, Nokia-owned, Qt apps, respectively.

The Strategy

Although the background to announcement of Tizen seems clear now, the future strategy is still a little hazy. However, considering the primary goals of key backers, a possible strategy for Tizen may be to develop the core OS and a set of development tools, with a very basic platform of content and services around it.

This would allow its key supporters – the OEMs, Intel and telecom operators – to customize the platform to their own individual needs and branding. All of them also want to independently capture the benefit of content sales flowing through their devices or networks, and an open, independent platform may suit their needs better. Intel would benefit by reducing the control of big three platform owners in deciding which chip-sets may be supported and ensuring Tizen is fully Atom-compatible.

One aspect critical to its success, though, will be support from app and content developers. Use of HTML5 as a development platform eases the transition path for developers but without a single large market or a strong promoter (like Microsoft with WP) backing it, developers might be vary of committing to the platform. Also, remaining to be seen is the DRM support on the platform – a lack of which may keep off content producers.

Ultimately, solving the riddle of ‘Which comes first – Apps or Customers?’, may require strong actions from Tizen’s backers beyond making announcements. These actions could be in a form similar to Intel’s recent $300 million Ultrabook fund, incentivising developers for apps and content for Tizen and OEMs for using the OS along with Intel’s AppUp store. Quick release of an SDK with a set of APIs and the initial set of devices will also encourage the developer community to take the device seriously.

The Future

Over the longer term, the biggest determinant of Tizen’s future may not be its own development, but how the industry dynamics with other OS platforms play out.

Of the various scenarios possible, the one best suited to Tizen’s success is one in which the bigger OEMs and Intel perceive themselves being further restricted by big three platform owners, are unable to promote their own OS platforms, and see their immediate bottom-lines threatened.

However, in an alternative scenario, if Google decides to sell off the OEM bits of Motorola, resolves the patent issues surrounding Android, and comes to a mid-way understanding with the OEMs over control of the interface and content, it can still rally the independent OEMs behind itself and cause the Tizen initiative to flag.

Also, if the big few OEMs – mainly Samsung and HTC – decide to bet on their own OS platforms by developing in-house (e.g. Bada 2.0) or buying orphans (like WebOS), it could still weaken their support towards Tizen’s development.

At the moment, Tizen is an outcome of spread betting by leading industry supporters while they see how the industry dynamics resolve themselves. To be successful, it will require strong support in terms of development, incentives and new devices from its promoters but that stage is still some time away. Till then, the core OS itself may continue development but as a platform it is likelier to follow LiMo’s graph than that of Android.