Apple fans have a nickname for Samsung: Same Soon. The Korean chaebol has tended to be one or two steps behind the innovators from Cupertino, California, in product development. That might be changing.
Samsung has released no fewer than six smartwatches in the last 12 months, while Apple isn't expected to ship its first until next year. All six are openly experimental. There's a fitness model, an inexpensive model and a model that runs on Android rather than Samsung's Tizen operating system. The latest addition, the Gear S, doesn't have to be connected to a smartphone like the rest. Those with fingers dainty enough to type on a 2-inch screen can send e-mails and messages on it.
One could argue that it's better to get it right the first time than to test products on consumers. The iPhone was not the first smartphone; it just combined all the necessary features. That approach, however, only works with an intuitive genius like Steve Jobs behind it. If you have the humility to recognize you're not Jobs, and the manufacturing capacity to mass-produce trial-and-error concepts, Samsung's approach makes sense. By getting its devices into many people's hands, it gradually gets the feedback necessary to put together a product with mass appeal -- an approach that appears to be working for Microsoft with its hybrid laptop-tablet device, the Surface Pro.
Samsung is trying things that its competitors haven't had the chutzpah to attempt. It has partnered with Oculus, one of Facebook's hottest acquisitions, to produce a virtual reality headset powered by a smartphone. Last year, it was the first major manufacturer to produce a mobile handset with a curved screen, and now it's about to release a phablet that turns the exotic feature into more than a curiosity. The design of the Galaxy Note Edge allows application makers to create menus for the curving side panel, and some, such as Twitter, have already developed one.
All this may have something to do with generational change. Samsung's revered 72-year-old chairman, Lee Kun Hee, has been hospitalized since a heart attack in May. His son, the modest and undemonstrative Lee Jae Yong, had to take over the company's day-to-day running. The younger Lee has been credited with forging Samsung's relationship with Apple back in the Steve Jobs days. Components from Samsung still account for almost 2 percent of Apple's cost of goods sold, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Samsung developed organic light-emitting diode displays, now featured in its smartphones, for use in the innovative TV sets that Apple has not released.
At its grand presentation scheduled for Sept. 9, Apple will show off a bigger, 5.5-inch iPhone -- a device that owes its existence to Samsung's original giant handset, the 2011 Galaxy Note. The doyen of gadget reviewers, Walt Mossberg, wrote back then that the Note's users looked as though they were "talking into a piece of toast." Now, Apple is forced to follow in Samsung's footsteps -- same soon -- because big phones have proved immensely popular, especially in Asia.
Samsung has a lot of troubles. They include disappointing financial results, competition from low-cost Chinese producers such as Xiaomi, software that compares unfavorably with Google's and Apple's, and design and materials inferior to Apple's (something Samsung is trying to address).
Still, the erstwhile follower is making an effort to lead. Lee Jae Yong knew Jobs well enough to be invited to his memorial service, from which many important tech figures were excluded. Perhaps Jobs's spirit lives on in him to a greater extent than in the current Apple management.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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