Samsung Finally Has a Phone That Runs Its Own Operating System

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This story originally appeared on Fortune Magazine

After years of delays and false starts, Samsung Electronics Co. has finally launched a smartphone that runs on its own Tizen operating system, a landmark move that may mark the beginning of the end of its dependence on Google Inc.’s Android system.

But the launch of the Z1 phone in India at a price of only $92 makes it clear how much the Korean has scaled down its ambitions for Tizen, at least in the short term, and how far it still has to go before it can wean itself off Android.

The company has pared the offering down to a no-frills product aimed at first-time smartphone buyers at the bottom end of the market, who won’t demand the comforts and capabilities of Android, still less Apple’s iOS. Those two systems operate 19 out of every 20 smartphones worldwide.

In truth, Samsung had been left with little alternative after three failed launches last year frustrated the developers that it needs in order to build an eco-system capable of rivalling those two. The company has to engineer the product so as to make standard services like Twitter, Facebook and Youtube available without a Tizen-specific app, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Reuters quoted Samsung as saying that the phone will have more than 1,000 apps available for download–less than one-tenth of those available for Android and iOS.

At the bottom end of the market, that may be no great problem. More important for the company is to get the product out so that it can build on it in the course of time–and, in the short term, defend its global market share. Samsung was deposed last year by Xiaomi as the largest smartphone maker in China.

Tizen is already in use in Samsung’s smartwatches and cameras and, most recently, its TVs. The company ultimately intends to make it the cornerstone of its strategy for making all of its household appliances connectable to the ‘Internet of Things’ in due course.

The question is whether, even in the world’s third biggest market for smartphones, Samsung can achieve enough scale for Tizen to persuade skeptical developers that making apps for it is worth their while. At $92, the phone is almost four times as expensive as the ultra-basic Nokia 130 phone which aims at the same segment, and more than 700 million people in the target market of India live on less than $2 a day, according to research firm IDC.

The phone has a four-inch display, one front-facing camera and an ultra-power savings mode. In an effort to help sales, it’s being sold with three-month subscriptions to music and Bollywood movie-streaming services, according to the WSJ.

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