The folks over at Samsung were kind enough to invite me to their Bada developer day conference in San Francisco this past Tuesday. For those who aren’t familiar with Bada, it’s Samsung’s very own mobile operating system. I’m not going to lie, I walked into the event highly skeptical about Samsung’s intentions. The idea simply didn’t make sense. With Apple’s iOS 4, Google’s Android v2.2, and plenty of other well established mobile operating systems, I didn’t see room for another. As I decided to hear them out, Samsung’s team relayed their justifications and vision for the Bada platform.
Aside from what I had read online, I hadn’t spent much time looking into the Bada platform before my meeting. Tech journalists and pundits made the entire platform sound like a lost cause. But in reality, that’s not the case. For starters, the new mobile platform, which has been in the making for nearly six years, will hit over 100 cellular carriers across over 80 countries. Now that’s distribution power. Google’s Android OS has only reached 48 countries and 59 carriers so far. In addition, many people don’t realize that Samsung’s worldwide handset sales represent a little over 20% of the market alone. That’s one step behind the number one player Nokia, but ahead of other competitors like LG and RIM.
To get further details, I sat down with Samsung’s VP of Media Solutions, Kanghyun Kwon, and Senior Engineer, Hyun Sik Yoon, both of whom work out of their main offices in Korea, to ask some questions. Martin Tannerfors, Director of Mobile Innovation, hosted the private interview.
It turns out that Samsung categorizes gadgets such as the iPhone and EVO 4G as “premium devices.” While smart phones have caught the media spotlight, they only represent a fraction of overall sales for the company. Mid-range devices still account for the rest. And that’s exactly where Bada comes in. It isn’t for high-end phones, but rather for “feature phones.” Samsung plans to fully pursue Android for their premium lineup, but the company also plans to place equal efforts into Bada.
While Samsung’s representatives made it clear that their intentions weren’t to compete with other leading mobile operating systems, they do hope that Bada becomes an acceptable option for lower-end devices. I’ve always hated finding proprietary software on mobile phones and it looks like they do too. Operating systems on mid-range devices are rarely polished and have inconsistent interfaces. Quality applications are usually hard to find since developers don’t want to place efforts into a platform that is limited to just one device. Finally, feature phones rarely get bug fixes or major platform updates, meaning they simply aren’t future proof.
Bada looks capable of addressing the lackings of all those proprietary “feature phone” operating systems. Samsung plans to achieve this goal by establishing their platform as a standard for all their next generation mid-range devices. The Bada OS isn’t limited by any means either. It offers API plugs for smart phone-like features like proximity sensors, GPS navigation, accelerometers, an ambient light sensors, and compasses. With a basic set of minimum requirements, Samsung clearly plans to raise the bar for “feature phones.”
And stepping back onto the topic of applications, the Bada platform includes a Samsung App store. It’s modeled heavily after Apple’s App Store, but appears to enforce even stricter restrictions. Samsung clearly disclosed that they only intend to accept “quality applications,” and anything less won’t reach Bada devices. While Google doesn’t regulate the Android Marketplace in support of open development, Bada won’t even let users enable an option to install “unapproved applications.” Tannerfors insists that Bada users aren’t always technology adept. He also offered an example of certain Android apps which crash and freeze devices. To avoid that problem and provide the best user experience, Samsung will only distribute apps they deem “good and safe.” Both a selection of free and paid apps will be available.
While I’m not a fan of restricted technologies, this decision makes sense for entry-level and mid-range phones for the mass market. It enables app developers to create a single app, which could potentially reach every Samsung Bada device. And the quality assurance means it’s likely that these apps will be bug-free. Also, Samsung does offer an unrestricted technology: HTML5 with Adobe Flash Lite 3 support. Therefore, Bada actually supports two platforms: the Samsung App Store and HTML5.
While most of these details sound great, it’s important to actually try the Bada OS. After demoing the Samsung Wave, which we will be reviewing soon, I found it surprisingly refreshing. As someone who’s owned feature phones such as the LG VX9900 and LG VX1100, I expected a horrendous user interface and unresponsive menus. Luckily, I was greeted with just the opposite. With Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay, the Bada OS looked as gorgeous as Android or iOS. It even features widgets for clocks, calendars, birthdays, emails, contacts, bookmarks, social networks, and more. While most phones lack the fluidity that the iPhone offers, Bada was honestly on par. Dragging down the notification bar at the top, switching through home screens, or scrolling through web pages was incredibly snappy and smooth. It even impressed one of my friends who just purchased an Apple iPhone 4. In some cases it was smoother than both my HTC EVO 4G and Motorola Droid X.
But here’s the catch: Samsung has no plans to bring it to the United States. The market is simply too different here. For instance, billing for mobile apps won’t go through Samsung, but rather through the cellular carrier. Chances of that happening with AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon Wireless are slim. Bada is really for Asian and European regions at this time. It’s initially going to appear on Samsung touchscreen phones in Korea. Although it’s intended for Samsung hardware at this stage, Mr. Kwon stated that Samsung may license Bada to other hardware manufacturers in the future. He also praised the idea of the established TouchWiz interface reaching across Android, Windows Mobile, and now Bada. And on a final note, he also mentioned the possibility of a Bada-powered tablet.
Despite my skepticism, I now see that Bada has enormous potential, mainly due to Samsung’s enormous distribution power. The “feature phone” market is in dire need of a vast refresh and Samsung’s Bada could very well be the solution. With a flexible platform, an application marketplace, open web standards, and an excellent user interface, customers looking for a great smart phone-like experience will finally be able to have one.