Samsung woos developers, seeks lost mojo

A giant "Sold Out" banner adorns the top left edge of the Samsung Developer Conference website. But San Francisco barely noticed. There is no Dreamforce-like impact on the city, when traffic is brought to a standstill for days. Not even the labor group and income-disparity protestors, now fixtures at most major tech events, bothered to show up.

But Samsung's big confab this week nonetheless represents a high-stakes gamble by the South Korean electronics giant to entice Silicon Valley developers to create products and applications for its smart home and wearable devices.

Samsung Developer Conference 2014 in San Francisco
Source: Samsung
Samsung Developer Conference 2014 in San Francisco

It's a bold move by Samsung to emulate the success of iOS software, Android, or even Microsoft's Windows of the 1990s by attempting to create an ecosystem that is so vibrant, other device-makers and software developers will gravitate to it.

Samsung has been working for years on its home-grown Tizen mobile operating system, which would give it more control over the look of its smartphones and other devices now powered by Google's Android. The company has released smartwatches and cameras that run Tizen, and demonstrated prototypes of Tizen TVs. However, this summer, the company was forced to postpone the introduction of the Tizen-powered Samsung Z smartphone in Russia.

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The platform initiative comes as the world's leading smartphone maker looks to regain its mojo following a difficult third quarter in which its profits fell by half and its share of the global smartphone market contracted by 7 percent in the July quarter, compared with last year, according to the latest statistics from International Data.

Samsung's smartphone business is being squeezed on the high end by Apple, whose introduction this fall of the big-screen iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus took away Samsung's chief competitive advantage. Meanwhile, on the low end, it is losing ground to local developers in China, India and Russia.

"They are not in a Blackberry or Nokia panic situation yet, as some in the media have surmised. But they need to figure a way out," said mobile industry consultant Chetan Sharma.

If Samsung succeeds in creating its own software platform — something consumer electronics companies have struggled with in the past (ask Sony) — it will be able to fundamentally differentiate its devices from the sea of Android devices around the planet, Sharma said.

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"Even though they're doing a lot of stuff in software and content, they could do even more," said Sharma, noting Samsung's breadth of consumer products. "They haven't done a good job of unifying the experience across various platforms — tablets, smartphones, TVs, watches."

It's this potential that has lured developers like Nuance, whose speech recognition and language recognition technologies can be found in cars, smartphones, wearable devices and televisions.

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"Samsung has so many consumer electronic devices out there," notes Scott Taylor, Nuance's senior vice president of mobile products.

On the floor of the developer's conference Tuesday, representatives of SmartThings — a Palo Alto company that Samsung acquired earlier this year — showed how third-party manufacturers, including Philips, Sonos and Yale, had used its smart-home platform.

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Apple's enterprise play   

SmartThings technical program manager Alexander Shen demonstrated such home-of-the-future staples as turning on the coffee pot from bed using the Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone, signaling "I'm awake;" or receiving a notification on the Samsung 4K TV screen from the Internet-connected washer/dryer that the laundry is done.

"The SmartThings platform existed before," Shen said. "Samsung provides the know-how on an international scale, the power of retail relationships [and] the ability to bring this platform to more people, into more markets."

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