Samsung’s attack on Google continued this week with the consumer electronics giant announcing two new fitness wearables that are based on Tizen rather than Android. But to be fair, Tizen may be better suited for the lower functional requirements of these devices than it is, say, for a full-featured smart watch.
As you probably know, Samsung is by far the biggest maker of smart phones in the world and it is thus also the biggest Android licensee by far. But the firm has been working to reduce its dependence on Android and Google, and it was an early backer of the mostly dead in the water Tizen mobile OS, which like Android is derived from Linux.
Tizen’s backers collectively originally had big plans for the OS: It was going to be used in smart phones that would compete with Android, and be used in a wide range of other devices like TVs, Blu-Ray set-top boxes, smart appliances, and more. The system never flew as a smart phone alternative, which shouldn’t be surprising given the failure of bigger platforms like Windows phone and Blackberry. But Samsung has pushed forward regardless, and in recent years it has started using Tizen in smaller devices.
So Samsung’s recent Gear-branded wearables—mostly smart watches so far—have used Tizen, rather than Google’s Android Wear. It’s possible that Tizen is more efficient than Android Wear—honestly, I have no idea—but one thing is clear: It’s also less full-featured, because it doesn’t have access to important Google services and apps like Google Maps. And Tizen is also support with far fewer apps in general than Android or Android Wear. (All of Samsung’s Tizen devices, including the new ones, are also incompatible with iPhone.)
On a smart watch like the Gear S2, this is problematic: Smart watches have evolved into smart phone companions, and most users should expect to see notifications and apps from their phones appear on these devices. But with the Gears S2, you can’t use Google Maps or other popular Google and third party apps and services. So you’re stuck with what Samsung provides, and let’s face it, very few Samsung phone buyers have ever pointed to Samsung’s apps and services as a selling point. This is Windows phone all over again.
But Tizen is perhaps more interesting on fitness wearables, which are less full-featured than smart watches and thus less reliant on the Android ecosystem of apps and services. Devices like the Fitbit Alta I recently purchased or Microsoft’s Band 2, which I still strongly recommend, offer what I think is the perfect balance of functionality, with glanceable, on-the-wrist access to phone calls, text messages, events, and other notifications.
This weekend Samsung announced two new Gear-branded, Tizen-based wearables, the Gear Fit 2, which is a “traditional” fitness tracker, I guess, and the Gear IconX wireless earbuds, which brings fitness tracking to a new form factor. Because they are fitness wearables, the use of Tizen is perhaps less onerous than it is/was with the Gear S2, and of course these devices target a different market than has Fitbit, not Google and Android Wear, as its focus.
Whether these devices are any good is unclear. Forced to rely on its own user experiences, I’m not actually sure Samsung could ever succeed. But the Gear Fit 2 looks a lot like its Android Wear-based predecessor (which I own) and thus a lot like the Band 2, which I like quite a bit. And the IconX is straight-up innovative.
My ambivalence for Tizen not withstanding, it’s fair to note that no one normal cares what “OS” powers devices like Fitbit or Band 2, which will sink (Band 2) or swim (Fitbit) on their own merits. And so Samsung’s use of Tizen on these devices should not—does not—matter. Assuming they work as advertised.
The Samsung Gear Fit 2 is priced competitively at $179—a price which makes the Band 2’s semi-permanent price cut to $175 look prescient–and offers a curved 1.5-inch AMOLED display, a dual-core 1 GHz processor, 512 MB of RAM, and 4 GB of storage. It is water resistant, and it provides heart rate tracking, and accelerator, gyroscope and barometer sensors. It … sounds a bit like a Band 2, doesn’t it? The Gear Fit 2 will ship next week and is available for preorder now.
The Gear IconX is perhaps more interesting if only because it’s such a different take on wearables. It’s a set of (Bluetooth) wireless earbuds that provides many fitness tracking capabilities in addition to music playback (with internal storage for 1000 songs). These include distance, speed and heartrate tracking, Samsung says. Alas, the IconX will not ship until late in 2016, Samsung says.
These devices are of course limited in the ways that all Tizen devices are limited. No Android/Wear or iPhone compatibility. And they rely on Samsung apps, like Samsung Health, on Android. But they also seem to offer good battery life—4 days for the Gear Fit 2, about 4x the Band 2’s battery—and 2 days for the IconX.
Ultimately, I still like the Fitbit approach, which is to begin with simple devices, hook users on their utility, and then “carefully layer on” more features over time. But competition is healthy, and while I’m not sold on Tizen at all, it can perhaps positively influence competing platforms, and benefit everyone.