Opinion

Happy Medium: the Gear S2 and Android compatibility

Samsung’s Gear S2 is another great smartwatch to continue the company’s commitment to a field it dabbled in starting in the late 1990s and even six years ago before the Galaxy Gear’s entrance in 2013. The company’s Gear smartwatch offerings have been well-crafted, but they’ve always been criticized from vanilla Android fans who want Samsung’s smartwatches to have Android Wear (or AW) compatibility. Each year brought the same criticism from AW advocates: “Samsung, it’s time to ditch Tizen for Android Wear.”

Samsung decided to place a smartwatch on Android Wear, and thus, the Gear Live was born in 2014. Yet and still, the Gear S announcement a few months later brought with it Samsung’s commitment to Tizen as, for the first time in the Gear lineup, Samsung’s smartwatches would run Tizen, not Android, out of the box (the Galaxy Gear, Gear 2, and Gear 2 Neo all ran Android until a firmware update moved them over to Tizen). Even though the Gear Live offered nice hardware, it, like all other Android Wear smartwatches, ran Google’s own smartwatch platform – and a uniform software experience.

With the announcement of the Gear S2, Samsung takes a turn in a different direction: while the smartwatch runs Tizen OS, the Korean manufacturer will allow Android compatibility for devices running Android 4.4, 4.4.2, and Android 4.4.4 KitKat, and Android 5.0, 5.0.2, 5.1, and 5.1.1 Lollipop. And, even when Google and Motorola choose to update their devices to Android 6.0 Marshmallow, Samsung’s Gear S2 will still work as expected.

Even with Samsung’s Android compatibility decision that opens up its smartwatch for pairing with non-Samsung, Android smartphones, some criticism still remains. In other words, some consumers who are really invested into Android Wear still dislike the company’s decision because they’re not too keen on Samsung’s software and would prefer what they believe to be a more simplified experience with Android Wear.

First, keep in mind that Samsung is familiar with its Tizen-only plans. Samsung has gone this route before, produced its own smartwatches on Tizen, only to see them criticized because some believe Tizen, lacking the apps of Android Wear, isn’t sufficient enough to warrant a $350-$400 smartwatch investment.

Samsung could have placed a second smartwatch on Android Wear, a Gear Live 2, if you will. Some believe that Samsung is “brute-forcing” Tizen onto the world, a statement I read somewhere this week, but this is not true – anymore than Google is “brute-forcing” Android Wear on the world. Android Wear is Google’s smartwatch platform, controlled by Google; although we’ve been promised that Google will open up Android Wear to customization by its OEMs, that promise has yet to come to fruition.

Google said then upon announcing Android Wear in 2014 that it was keeping the software experience uniform in order to oversee a more fluid experience on all smartwatches under the Android Wear label, but it is that “fluid” experience with little additional customization that leaves a bland taste in the mouths of those who desire Samsung’s own “flair” on their devices. When it comes to even the Gear Live, it’s excellent in hardware but it is still held back by Android Wear.

It’s not hard to see Samsung’s desire to branch out, blaze its own trail, do its own thing apart from Android Wear. The result of Samsung’s own vision? The Gear S2, a circular smartwatch that runs Tizen while allowing Android smartphone pairing compatibility for non-Samsung smartphone users. Is this a “happy medium”? I think so.

I don’t think Samsung should sacrifice Tizen to place its most prestigious smartwatch yet on Android Wear. Samsung should create its own devices for its own operating system, the same fairness that has been accorded to both Google and Apple. The company is the top Android giant when it comes to making smartphones and tablets, but it doesn’t have to tie its entire existence into Android and all things Android. Ultimately, companies in charge of their operating systems hold control to enact their own visions upon them. Since Google controls Android Wear and Android in general, Samsung will forever be just an Android manufacturer who reports to Google within Android. To own your own operating system is the desire of any innovative company that wants to think outside the box and “go against the mold,” so to speak. Samsung deserves that honor as much as Google and Apple.

At the same time, however, reaching a greater customer base involves opening up compatibility to those who wouldn’t consider it, otherwise. And right now, Tizen is, for many, a startup project with a lot of room to grow. What Samsung has made work for itself is the fact that its hardware is well-designed (heck, even the Gear S is what I call a smartwatch that screams “different,” and I happen to like the “different”), and the Gear S2 is no exception. Already, within the Android world, there are many consumers who will pick up a smartwatch for the first time because the Gear S2 is the smartwatch for which they’ve been anxiously awaiting.

Samsung could have gone fully Tizen, or fully Android, but decided to take a middle-of-the-road approach. As with anything, you can’t always please everyone, but if it takes a cool rotating bezel and Android 4.4 KitKat compatibility to increase Samsung’s user base, I’m all for it.

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