You may not have heard of Tizen, but it’s risen from the ashes of MeeGo - the now discontinued open source mobile OS touted by Nokia and Intel – and is about to be big news. Samsung is rolling its Bada platform into it, and just unveiled a prototype device at the first Tizen Developer Conference in San Francisco.

Seeing as Sammy ships more mobiles than anyone else in the world, expect Tizen to be big. So what is it? And why is Samsung interested? Read on to find out.

Like its predecessors, Tizen is open source and based on Linux. It grew from the still twitching corpse of MeeGo, which was itself the bastard offspring of Maemo and Moblin. So you can see Tizen has some lineage. It also has some serious weight behind it, with Samsung and Intel both in the Tizen Association. The mobile OS features some of the same features as MeeGo, such as network management, but there are some key differences.

It only borrows some technologies from MeeGo. The MeeGo APIs for making apps based on Qt aren’t on board, for example. And while it is open source, Tizen’s software development kit is available from Samsung under a restrictive proprietary licence, so it’s very much Samsung’s baby.

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It uses HTML5, and will be for use in smartphones, smart TVs, tablets, netbooks and in-vehicle infotainment set-ups.

Samsung’s Tae-Jin Kang said back at this year’s CES that Samsung intended to roll Bada into Tizen. “We have an effort that will merge Bada and Tizen,” he told Forbes. He said the merger was already underway, though he didn’t set a date for completion.

But hang on, Samsung already has Android and Windows Phone on its handsets. Why would it need Tizen?

More control, More power

The answer is more control. With Samsung running the show on the Tizen OS, without Google (and Motorola) to answer to, it can make its handsets more distinctive than the army of Android lookalikes currently on sale, just like Apple does with iOS.

At the Galaxy S3 launch last week, Samsung was keen to big up its own software touches, such as the phone knowing when you’re looking at it and keeping the screen on until your eyes wander. Or the ability to call someone mid-text by just raising the phone to your ear. Samsung knows most Android devices are pretty interchangeable, so if it wants to keep its position as top dog in the smartphone market, it needs to innovate. It could have big plans for Tizen, too.

Samsung is planning “at least one to two” Tizen-powered phones this year, according to Tae-Jin Kang. While he told Forbes “Tizen will not become Samsung’s main operating system platform anytime soon,” the fact he even mentioned it being its flagship at all is telling. Could Samsung build up the OS to gradually overtake its Android output over the next few years? Quite possibly.

Just this morning Samsung unveiled a prototype Tizen device. It features a 4.3-inch screen with a dual-core 1.2GHz processor, so if this is anything to go by we’re looking at an OS that can power mid-to high-end handsets, just as Tae-Jin Kang said.

The operating system looks very similar to TouchWiz. And while the HTML5 apps look a little laggy, this is still just a prototype. Support for Facebook, Twitter and Gmail are also there as standard.

Samsung also promised backwards compatibility with current Bada apps in future software, so you’ll still be able to use your Bada favourites on these Tizen mobiles.

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That’s good news for developers too, as if they know how to make apps for Bada, they’ll already be set for Tizen with no new skills required. And hey presto, Samsung already has a back catalogue of apps at launch.

There’s no point in bombarding consumers with a new OS to learn, so when Tizen is ready Samsung should keep it simmering in the background, introducing more handsets gradually rather than going all out. Until it becomes a viable alternative to Android and Windows Phone, that is.

Either way, if Samsung maintains its standing as top shipper of smartphones, we’ll be hearing a lot more about Tizen in the future.

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