How Samsung became Android’s software champion
Samsung made an almost miraculous transformation over the last few years. The company has always made some of the best-selling Android smartphones, but it has long been criticized for its slow system updates. Samsung also took a lot of slack for its bloated TouchWiz UI. This changed with its switch to One UI, preceded by a short period in 2016 when the company simply called its software the “Samsung Experience.”
One UI was introduced in 2018 during Samsung’s developer conference and then launched alongside the Galaxy S10 and the original Galaxy Fold. The new software lives on top of Android, which we will focus on here, but soon also spread to other form factors. Other than on phones and tablets, One UI’s distinct design language and navigation paradigms can be found on smartwatches and laptops made by the mobile division of Samsung.
As Samsung’s fifth iteration of its software is rolling out, Samsung One UI 5, we had the opportunity to sit down with Sally Jeong, the company’s Vice President of Android Framework R&D. We talked about how Samsung managed to take on this big transition, how important customers and beta users are to Samsung in its software decisions, and how closely the company works with Google to achieve this impressive recent track record.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Android PoliceThank you so much for your time, Sally. Would you like to introduce One UI 5 and yourself for us and our audience before we dive in? What were your greatest achievements with One UI?
Sally JeongOne of the major things that we achieved was that we greatly expanded the delivery time to about two months, and we have multiple Galaxy devices which use One UI. The time it takes to deliver a One UI update to one of the first Galaxy devices and the last one has also greatly reduced to about one-third of what it used to be.
To enable that reduction of the overall schedule, we had to focus not only on the specific features but also on making improvements in the overall structure or framework of how we do the delivery. So, we focus mainly on providing the users with clear usability and simple functionality. Also, One UI is based on Android. So we had to collaborate very closely with Google, and we also managed to increase the overall efficiency of that collaboration as well.
Myself, I’ve been involved with the One UI development from the beginning, and, since we have One UI version 5, one of the things that our users particularly like is the smoothness of the features and the usability. For example, many say that the animations are now much smoother than what they used to be.
AP: It’s clear that Samsung went from a place where it was one of the slowest manufacturers in terms of long-term Android update support to one of the fastest, if not the fastest. I’m curious how you went from this place and what the biggest challenges were that you had to overcome to achieve this.
SJ: First of all, speeding up the development and deployment process was not just something to be done between the first version and the second version. We have been working on it constantly, improving all the relevant processes and delivery together from the start. It’s a constant effort.
When you look at One UI, we started from Android. Android has been developed for quite a long time by many providers. That’s why there were certain features that were initially asked for by, for example, carriers. And as time passed, some of these features became outdated or integrated or had to be integrated. So we made a lot of effort in refining the whole set of features, reviewable features that were available in fragmented sets that we could integrate and consolidate together. We tried to standardize a set of features that we wanted to provide with One UI.
When we talk about software development, we just simply refer to it as one big version, but there are different layers. For example, we differentiated the platform feature layer and the system area layer. The benefit of having these two layers independent is that we can work on developing or enhancing the usability on the platform layer. And at the same time, independently work on the system layer to improve stability. That is what could speed up the overall software development life cycle.
There are also Samsung’s unique core apps that we provide with our devices. We make sure that Samsung core apps use less memory and that the overall performance is enhanced. What we try to do is that even with the same activity that users would perform, it would incur less system cost on the device. Whether it was RAM or ROM, we tried to improve the overall performance while reducing the cost of the system.
In terms of Google collaboration, one example could be that we had Pixel and Material features in the past that were in conflict with Samsung’s theme, and we would only find out about such conflicts at the last minute. That was a big part in prolonging the overall process. What we do now is that we would discuss the possible engineering conflicts in advance so that they wouldn’t occur. The overall risk management between the two parties has much improved.
AP: It’s great to see Samsung move into this position, and it’s good to see how well the collaboration between you and Google works. How do you see Samsung continuing its innovation in the next few years? What could we expect to see in terms of software, if you can talk about this?
SJ: The overall direction for us is always the same. We focus on customers’ needs. It’s not like we would try to pioneer a certain feature direction and let the users follow. We believe that customers’ needs can change constantly. For example, during the pandemic, the actions of users use the most could change, and the environment they use our devices in could change, so we constantly have to listen to what is it that the consumer customers want, and for us, that’s the most important factor in defining our direction.
We cannot give you a clear answer that this definitely is what we’ll do, but what I can say for sure is that as time passes, we believe that users will want to reflect their personalities and characters on their devices more and more. We want to provide those features as much and as conveniently as possible. That’s the one direction that we think of.
Dynamic theming in One UI 5
Another example, if you look at the market trend right now, AI is an important technology. However, we won’t provide AI technology for its own sake. Rather, we would try to think about how consumers will use our device during their daily lives and see if we can support something more convenient with AI. That’s how we will be using it, making sure that in terms of usability, consumers will enjoy it better.
Also, because Samsung has many different devices, our developers will constantly make an even greater effort to make sure that connectivity across these multiple devices will be even easier in the future.
AP: Talking about consumers and what they need, I’m very interested in what role the One UI Open Betas play for you in the development cycle. How valuable is the feedback that you get from us consumers? How helpful are the Open Betas for deployment and learning what features consumers actually want?
SJ: We are in the fifth generation of our One UI software, and as we went through these five iterations, about 500,000 Galaxy users have voluntarily participated to give us feedback through the Open Beta. We really appreciate their participation. The feedback they provided us with amounts to 350,000 different needs or requirements. So obviously, we value each and every one of them.
When it comes to bugs, we would respond in real time, or as quickly as possible. But the significance of having this beta program is that when we provide new features we need to get the customers’ feedback. Qualitative feedback, not just the positive ones, and I’d like to give you some examples.
Samsung invites everyone to try betas, developer or not
With One UI 5, we slightly changed the app icon style in the beta and asked how users felt about it. The general feedback was that they like the existing ones, the previous ones, better, so we decided to keep those. Another example concerns how you would view folders in the Gallery app. We made some changes in the options to views in the Gallery. Here, we also got feedback with requests for enhancements. And based on that feedback, we now allow users to choose some of their own settings.
This is the kind of valuable feedback that we get, and that’s why we have this open beta program. As a developer, you would understand that the beta programs period is really, really tough. You need to get the feedback and respond with changes. It’s really challenging. However, what’s rewarding is that once the beta program is done, you would finally get the users’ positive feedback and, you know, that’s why engineers make the effort.
APOne thing I would like to circle back to would be foldables and tablets, in regard to how Samsung worked with Google to create Android 12L, the additional 12.1 release focused on big screen devices. I’m curious how much Samsung DNA there is in Android 12L, and how you and Google work together on providing these improvements to everyone in the Android ecosystem.
SJ: So, we could say that the outcome has a very high percentage of Samsung’s DNA if you want to say it that way. That’s because when you think about it, Android came to support foldables because Samsung created foldable devices. And to make foldables work, it was important not just to make it work for Samsung apps, but the experience had to be good for all foldables. So even starting with this very first challenge we defined, we formed a task force with Google, and we have been executing it successfully ever since.
One of the major things that we collaborated on was optimizing third-party apps for bigger screens. We have been working on that challenge for about three years, and now, we are seeing some visible achievements.
Another important challenge was supporting Flex mode. It’s Samsung’s unique hardware capability, and we had to optimize it in terms of software experience as well. The result is that a lot of our consumers love the feature. And for that, Samsung actually contributed our code to the Android ecosystem, and Samsung provided a lot of input for the foldable platform features.
APSo, one provocative question then. What’s in it for Samsung when the company develops features for everyone to use rather than keeping them exclusive to itself?
SJ: In the end, it’s all about consumers. In the past, we used to provide Samsung-exclusive features for developers with the Samsung SDK. But when you think about how our consumers use our phones, a lot of apps that they use could be Samsung apps, but also Google apps or third-party apps. So all those apps have to be optimized on foldables, from a customer’s perspective. If it requires collaboration with Google or a contribution to the Android ecosystem, we would do it.
It also helps us to maintain the technology leadership in terms of foldables’ capabilities. Foldables’ capabilities are right now considered synonymous with Samsung’s capabilities, and that’s one thing that our developers take great pride in.
Another important characteristic of One UI is that it’s open. So, we continue to drive its openness and balance it with our technology leadership.
AP: In that same vein, I’d have one last question. We all know about Google’s licensing terms and that this dictates the inclusion of a few Google apps. If Samsung is so focused on consumer experience, why is it still duplicating some apps that are already available from Google on its devices?
SJ: Could we park this question? It’s something that should be given from the service team rather than the engineering team.
AP: Of course. Thank you for your time, Sally, this would be everything!
Following the interview, we received the following statement from Samsung:
Both Samsung and Google provide apps that have their own objectives; Google for overall Android users and Samsung tries to give a more differentiated experience to Galaxy users. For duplicated apps, sometimes Google begins a service first and sometimes Samsung does, it is vice versa. Both try to offer the best user experience and monitor market responses giving more options to customers.