For two years, we’ve been hearing about Tizen smartphones. But we haven’t seen any.
Tizen was first promised by Nokia as a replacement for its Symbian OS — one of several such successors that never saw the light of day, including Maemo and MeeGo. When Nokia switched to Windows Phone, Intel and then Samsung picked up Linux Foundation’s Tizen open source project as a lower-end operating system for phones and other devices. Now it’s pitched as the “everywhere” OS for the Internet of things.
Tizen has been all hat and no cattle. But now the cows are coming: The poorly reviewed Samsung Gear 2 smart watch is the first device to run the full Tizen OS, and full-Tizen cameras and TVs are promised by Samsung for later this year. And the first Tizen smartphone, the Samsung Z, is due this fall for sale in Russia and other former Soviet-bloc countries. I got a brief chance to try out the Samsung Z this week at the Tizen Developers Conference, and I can tell you that, despite its still-languid pace of development, Tizen is an actual operating system, not just the never-ending research project it has felt like.
The Samsung Z looks and feels very much like Samsung’s Android smartphones. There’s the tiles section at the top of the home screen, with some app icons at the botton, and there’s the pull-down notifications and settings tray at the very top. You also get the hardware Back and Menu buttons, in addition to the main Home button. The Settings app looks almost identical to Samsung’s Android version.
None of that is a surprise — Samsung has said it wants its Tizen phones to feel like its Android phones so that users don’t hesitate to stay within the Samsung universe. Back when it had the Bada OS, it espoused the same goal of a largely converged UI.
But there are some differences, and not just in the icon designs. If you swipe up from the app section on the home screen, you get a full-screen window of app icons, similar to the standard iOS home screen. And you don’t get the multitasking controls in Android, such as when you swipe in from the side. The Tizen UI may echo the look of Samsung’s Android UI, but it’s a much simpler interface with only basic gestures to learn. In that regard, it’s less complex to master than Canonical’s Ubuntu Touch or Mozilla’s Firefox OS, both aimed at the same users.
You’ll find the usual apps on the Samsung Z for email, contacts, calendar, making phone calls, messaging, and navigating. Several apps that Samsung puts on its Android devices were also on the Tizen device, including S-Note and Polaris Office. I was pleased to see support for Microsoft Exchange accounts in the Settings app — a feature missing on most low-end OSes.
I didn’t have enough time with the device to go deeply into the beta apps provided. But Tizen apps are HTML5 apps, so they don’t have the sophisticated capabilities that iOS apps or even Android apps can have. However, the truth is that many Android apps and some iOS apps are actually HTML5 apps in a native wrapper, so I have no doubt that Tizen can fulfill the need for basic apps like social networking, chatting, basic photo editing, and media playback. Just don’t expect it to run apps similar in capabilities to Microsoft Office or Apple’s iMovie.
As for the Samsung Z’s hardware, I found the touchscreen to be not very responsive. It often didn’t register my taps or other gestures. That’s a hallmark of using a cheapo screen to shave off a few bucks. That’s not uncommon for smartphones aimed at developing markets where even a $100 cost — never mind the $600 to $800 of an iPhone or Galaxy S — cuts out most of the population.
One of the rationales for using an OS like Tizen instead of Android is that its hardware requirements are lower, so device makers like Samsung can use cheaper parts and bring down the total cost. That’s old news in the developing world: There are tens of millions of low-quality smartphones in Asia and Africa, for example, running the subset of Android known as AOSP.
But people in poor countries are no less ambitious than people in rich ones. I see cutting corners as a temporary approach, and the real solution is high-powered hardware becoming cheaper, which is also happening. Cheapo smartphones are an interim strategy, not a long-term one, and I’m not sure that Tizen smartphones — any more than Ubuntu Touch, Firefox OS, or Jolla Salifish models — are more than stepping-stone operating systems back to Android and iOS.
Certainly, my brief experience with the Tizen-powered Samsung Z made me wonder why I’d bother with it compared to Android. It’s serviceable, but it also feels like every other smartphone out there. Neither Tizen nor Samsung is bringing anything distinct to the table, and that table has better offerings on it.