TOKYO -- Technology giants from the U.S. that ushered in the smartphone era are fighting to keep their grip on the ever-changing device and software sectors. Their aim is to avoid a costly battle over handset prices and functions, and to expand the "ecosystem" of gadgets using their operating software.
Google Android, used by Samsung Electronics and other manufacturers, is the dominant operating system for smartphones. More than four out of five smartphones shipped around the world run on the system. But for the U.S. company, this is just the beginning. Google in June announced plans at a developers' conference in San Francisco to expand the "Android empire." Its ambition reaches beyond smartphones.
Android Wear, an OS for wearable computers, is the next step in Google's plan. At the conference, Google introduced three new smartwatches made by LG Electronics and others that operate on the system. Users can check their schedules and receive notifications without the bother of carrying a smartphone. The devices also provide route navigation and can display information such as recipes.
The U.S. company also introduced Android Auto, which allows drivers to use their smartphones' car navigation and email services via voice command in their cars. With another new feature, Android TV, users will be able to buy movies, games and other content and enjoy them on their sets. Google plans to team up with automakers and electronics manufacturers to promote Android-capable cars and TVs.
"Smartphone users increasingly live in a multiscreen world," Sundar Pichai, senior vice president in charge of Android, said in his speech at the conference. "We want to give them seamless experiences with Internet-connected devices."
About a billion people use Android-based devices. These users are said to check their smartphones an average of 125 times a day. Some 20 billion text messages flow through the Android ecosystem every day.
Health and shopping
Apple pioneered the smartphone business in 2007 with the launch of the iPhone. The company is now laying the groundwork to connect more and more devices to the Web, a development known in the industry as the Internet of things.
A new operating system for the iPhone, iOS 8, is expected later this year. It will feature an app, HealthKit, that measures and stores data such as exercise routines, heart rates and blood pressure. The device will enable users to manage their health and fitness information more accurately. Senior vice president Craig Federighi said the system will help doctors provide timely care to patients.
Another main feature is a program for managing home appliances including lighting fixtures, air conditioners and security cameras. When users give a voice command that they are going to bed, their iPhones will dim the lights or lock the doors.
Amazon.com is also getting in on the act. The online retail giant launched its first smartphone in July but has no intention of competing with rivals on price and function. The company is targeting loyal customers who want a device for shopping and content downloading.
The smartphone recognizes magazines, merchandise and other items captured by its camera and navigates users to Amazon product pages to buy them. Owners of the handsets get Amazon's express delivery service for free for one year. Amazon is trying to attract customers with a new business model that uses smartphones but is not directly concerned with the devices themselves.
A U.S. survey shows that people who own Amazon-developed tablets and other portable devices download entertainment from the company's websites 30% more frequently and spend 30% more than those without the gadgets. CEO Jeff Bezos said the most important thing Amazon has achieved since its founding 20 years ago is winning customer trust. For him, the smartphone is a tool to lock in 240 million customers worldwide.
Though they are rivals, U.S. tech giants and Asian companies have symbiotic relationships. Google intends to launch a low-price smartphone, Android One, in emerging economies, and will push the device mainly in India. A local partner for the new phone is upstart maker Micromax Informatics. Apple's business would not be viable without Hon Hai Precision Industry of Taiwan, known as Foxconn, and other Asian suppliers.
U.S. companies are offering services that connect smartphones with other devices to expand their market share. But they also hope to avoid head-on collisions with emerging Asian rivals and remain core players in the industry.