The developers conference that I just returned from wasn't short on excitement. From standing-room technical sessions to wall-to-wall crowds waiting for the keynote to free giveaways (tablets for all and TVs for a lucky few), over a thousand people packed the St. Francis in San Francisco.
Nope - this was neither WWDC nor Google I/O - this was the first-ever global Samsung Developers Conference.
Without a doubt, Samsung is positioning itself as the digital platform for a "connected life." Samsung believes the connected life starts with smartphones and tablets but extends into the entire "connected home," from TVs to refrigerators to dishwashers. But not only is Samsung creating hardware, it's investing in "soft wares" - people - through global Open Innovation Centers to grow startups and foster innovation.
While many of us don't expect our home appliances to send status updates of our eating habits or flavor of ice cream, it's certainly plausible that the interconnectedness of our homes is just beginning.
Many view Samsung as the king of Android devices and TVs, capturing 95 percent of all Android smartphone profits and selling two TVs every second. But no king can remain content in this digital game of thrones, lest they find themselves in the company of Nokia and RIM.
While Samsung pushes forward, its strategy raises more questions about the state of Android and the digital life.
Samsung continues to introduce new capabilities for its smartphone and tablet devices, from pen-based input to KNOX (enterprise-oriented security and device management) to multiscreen to AllShare for media management to gesture and motion based interactions. With these features, though, come Samsung-specific APIs and implicitly a Samsung-specific version of Android.
Some have compared this to the Amazon Kindle forking of Android, but what we effectively get is a Samsung application experience, not an Android experience. While Samsung retains mindshare and marketshare for Android, this would appear to create a new type of fragmentation within the Android ecosystem, forcing publishers not only to choose the Android platform and Android versions - but devices.
The TV as the Primary Screen?
There were lots of demos and sessions focused on the TV as a - if not the - primary screen, from SDKs to enable multiscreen capabilities to media sharing across mobile devices and TV via AllShare (via DLNA). The application development process for TV was interesting as well, as Samsung is striving to simplify the development and submission process by providing cross-platform emulators (and remote testing of actual hardware devices) via VirtualBox with an integrated Eclipse-based development environment.
Applications can be developed in HTML5 (they use a flavor of WebKit). In addition, the keynote hinted at their focus on gaming (with a short speech from Unity and a video of an integrated smartphone and controller) but the breakout session dove into more details about their use of PPAPI (Pepper PlugIn API) and PNaCl (Portable Native Client) for performance and optimization on the TV.
Samsung also described the Evolution Kit, a paperback-size hardware attachment to upgrade legacy TVs to the latest capabilities; however, this device is neither small nor cheap (listed at $299) and remains proprietary to Samsung TVs.
Even with this upgrade path and their support for Smooth Streaming and MPEG-DASH, the question remains whether this model of television as the "first screen" - one that is orthogonal to Apple TV and Chromecast - is the right one. For a company that sells two TVs each second, it just may be the only one.
Is Social Actually Anti-Social?
One of the demos during the keynote highlighted a user experience that has been promoted by others (both platform and application developers): extending the mobile experience by overlaying mobile content onto the TV, e.g., tweets, status updates, polls, etc.
However, this model of using the television essentially as an external monitor effectively turns a social experience (e.g., watching a live event, series finale, etc.) into a personal one - do I really want to see you post a picture of the cheese dip when the Rams are 4th and goal with only seconds left on the clock?
Complexity or Simplicity?
At the heart of the discussion is how publishers and users will react in the long term to Samsung’s approach to innovation. While they continue to redefine and evolve their Android landscape, the ecosystem of devices and capabilities (e.g., AllShare, KNOX, multiscreen, gestures, motion, pen-based input, etc.) takes us down a road that is seemingly complex, especially as compared to the Apple expectation of simplicity.
Both approaches can succeed, though the journey forward will be fragmented and bumpy.