As Samsung dominates the Android market, one has to wonder, who controls whom? Is Google really in charge, or is Samsung so strong it can now rule the Android game?

This morning’s thoughts are harder to focus than usual: I’m sitting across the street from Sciences Po — the Paris Institute of Political Studies — one of France’s elite graduate schools. As hundreds of students gather at the door, smoking (and littering the pavement with very Parisian hauteur), I’m dismayed by the thought that many of these smart, eagerly alive young people will die from lung cancer. Somber thoughts made more acute by the loss of a dear friend two days ago to that very illness — the third smoking-induced death of a close relation in a matter of months. This from a legal drug that’s much more dangerous than some that can land you in jail….

Back to less morbid topics: Like so many other high tech observers, the impending CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas has prompted me to take a guess at what — or who — will turn out to be 2103′s most important development. One name that isn’t on the list: Microsoft.

CES isn’t just an endless series of booths manned by barkers and BS artists where companies peddle their latest vacuum tube audio gear and touch-screen laptops, it’s also the venue for a conference with a series of keynote speeches. During the Golden Age of the PC, Bill Gates was the obligatory headliner on the eve of the trade show. Gates’ keynote was an opportunity for the head of the world’s most important software company to describe (and prescribe) the future according to Microsoft.

When he ceded the CEO title, Gates also passed the keynote baton to Steve Ballmer who continued the propaganda, although with progressively diminishing success. Last year’s keynote was widely trashed by the press (see here, here or here)

Microsoft CEO crashes and burns in final CES keynote.
At CES, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer Strains For Relevance

There will be no keynote address from Ballmer or any other Microsoft representative at this year’s CES.
The baton has indeed been passed, but to whom?
The ascendancy will be decided in a fight between Google and Samsung — and that could turn out to be the most important 2013 development.

Samsung is, by far, the biggest promoter and the best advertisement for the Android platform. Not only does the Korean giant dominate the Android market in unit volume — about half if we believe the company’s necessarily imprecise numbers — it also sets the standard for quality with handsets such as the Galaxy S III. And when you consider the huge amount of money Samsung has spent promoting their devices (about $13B — see Horace Dediu’s chart, below, from yet another of illuminating posts, The Cost of Selling Galaxies), you would think that the two companies would be close allies.

But as Samsung dominates ever more of the Android market, one has to wonder: Who controls whom? Is Google really in charge, or is Samsung so strong it can now set the rules in the Android game?

I don’t think Samsung’s competitors fully appreciate the implications of the company’s spare-no-expense investment in securing a dominant market share. In particular, I wonder what Apple execs think of the disproportion between their own relatively tiny marketing expenses and Samsung’s gargantuan budget. Apple has shown, time and again, that they can do more with less, but have they let Samsung secure an inexpugnable market position? Perhaps the Cupertino team was simply unwilling to waste money stimulating a demand they knew they couldn’t satisfy due to iPhone supply chain bottlenecks.

Is Google truly happy with all this free advertisement? Samsung is firing on all cylinders: great Android handsets, apparently limitless manufacturing capacity, imaginative and prolific marketing campaigns. There may be a feeling in Mountain View that the tail is starting to wag the dog, the handset vassal could end up dictating terms to the platform creator. Samsung could parlay its dominant share of Android handsets in a number of ways.

For example: The Android economy doesn’t rely on licensing revenues but on user data that flows back to the Google mothership through the use of Google applications running on platform-compliant handsets. (Such data then flows through Google’s advertising money pump, but we’ll leave that aside for now.) What if Samsung could renegotiate its Android license and demand “role-appropriate” levies for running Google apps on its market-leading handsets? We’ve heard rumors of just such a levy before: Apple is said to receive significant payments for favoring Google’s search engine in iOS devices.

Another possibility is that Samsung could emulate Amazon’s practice of picking the Android lock. By modifying the Open Source Android source code — a completely legal maneuver — Samsung could create its own set of revenue-generating apps and services and thus cut Google out of the income stream. A number of other handset makers, particularly in China, are headed down this path, proposing devices based on Android-derived platforms such as Tapas and OPhone.

Lastly, although less seriously, Samsung has announced handsets based on Tizen, an OS that has joined the chorus line of Open Source platforms: Gram (née WebOS), Jolla (Nokia émigrés), Ubuntu (née Debian), Firefox OS. My apologies for possible oversights…

Samsung can’t possibly believe it can build a viable business on Tizen. It must know that the platform itself no longer matters, that this has become an ecosystem war. Even with Samsung’s resources and determination, betting on Tizen as an alternative to the Android ecosystem isn’t realistic — and can’t possibly impress Google execs. Complicating matters, Samsung also builds handsets on Windows Phone and Bada (developed in house). Such complexity isn’t sustainable.

Over in its corner, Google has Motorola. Ostensibly acquired for its patents, Motorola could    be the piece of the puzzle that Google needs to create a fully-integrated device, a “proper” Android handset that Google execs feel their ecosystem deserves and that independent handset makers have failed to deliver. Rumors of an xPhone are in the air, but they don’t say much about what the product will do, exactly, or when it will come out.(Google protests that it won’t give its Motorola team any unfair advantage…a promise that comes from a company that gives special access to partners-of-the-moment such as HTC, Samsung, and LG.)

Of course, creating a device in the numbers that can effectively compete with leading Samsung (and Apple) devices is easier said than done. Google/Motorola will need to convince component suppliers and device manufacturers — who are “controlled” by Samsung and Apple — to free up some space on their assembly lines.

So on one side, we have Samsung, an extremely capable and determined Korean giant with huge technical and financial resources — and little regard for niceties.

On the other, we have Google with its unparalleled infrastructure, full control of the Android ecosystem through its Google apps (think Maps) and services, very strong finances, and real long-term vision. As for niceties, Google’s style may be more “polished” than Samsung’s, but it isn’t a pushover. Google can stand toe-to-toe with anyone.

In the end, ownership of the ecosystem should tip the scales: Google will win the undeclared war with Samsung. The Mountain View company will help itself to the higher value of vertically integrated products and, at best, degrade the Korean giant’s margins or, worse, drive them into a PC-like race-to-the-bottom with other handset makers.

This isn’t an outcome Samsung will take lightly.

JLG@mondaynote.com

PS: Bill Clinton will attend Samsung’s CES keynote