Sorry, but Samsung has not taken Apple’s innovation crown
The Galaxy S 4 shows that both Samsung and pundits confuse features with innovation
A curious thing happened after last week’s big reveal of the highly anticipated Samsung Galaxy S 4, the successor to the wildly popular S III, which was the first smartphone to seriously contend against the Apple iPhone. While the hype around Samsung as the new innovation leader went over the top, the disappointment around the S 4 hit immediately. That conflict shows that something is really off in the tech industry and among the tech punditry. I’d go so far as to say the industry and punditry at large have crossed into a parallel universe of stupidity.
Most of what analysts, journalists, and pundits have written on blogs and circulated ad nauseam on Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn goes along these lines: “[Apple is] not currently carrying the torch for innovation in the enterprise smartphone market — Samsung has grabbed the crown with its recent Galaxy S 4 announcement.” That’s from a blog post by Aberdeen Research mobile analyst Andrew Borg, one of the smarter industry analysts.
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Sure, I expected BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins to declare the iPhone to be dated because it uses a six-year-old operating system. He’s trying to resurrect the BlackBerry, whose UI had not changed in more than a decade and was trounced by the iPhone until the company finally got a clue last year. The new BlackBerry Z10, while a good device, itself uses a UI based on the fundamental construct that Apple’s iPhone introduced and is largely a clone of 2009′s WebOS.
Heins can’t claim to be an innovator; he makes that dubious statement because he’s engaged in marketing, and no one expects advertisements to be fair analysis. But Borg and the rest aren’t selling their companies’ products, so their “Samsung is the new innovator” claims are harder to understand.
Just what is innovation, exactly?
The picture is much more complicated than the blog posts suggest. If you define innovation as changing the game, Apple is responsible for nearly all the innovations we see in mobile today. Google deserves credit for the unified notifications tray and Samsung for the reinvention of pen computing. The rest — gestures, apps, app stores, phones as computers, phones as media devices, contextual operation, and the notion of a unified ecosystem across device types — are Apple’s.
As Trip Chowdhry notes, they set the assumptions for every mobile device out there, whether running Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, Ubuntu, or another OS. Each platform may bring its own inventions and distinctions to the table, but they’re playing in the world Apple defined. Samsung has done nothing like that — it just copied and sometimes refined or extended Apple’s innovation, he says: “There have always been ‘innovators’ who drink their own Kool-Aid. Samsung has done nothing significant to the user experience.” (Chowdhry, Global Equities Research’s research director for equities, is a controversial financial analyst who nonetheless has the best track record in that community for Apple analysis.)
The problem is, the last fundamental innovations in mobile — that is, on the scale of the iPhone, Siri, and the iPad — came several years ago. I’d argue that the iPhone 4 was the last truly innovative iPhone. The iPhone 4S’s Siri voice assistant service was a true innovation, and of course the iPad was a game-changer, reinventing personal computing as we know it, as the declining PC market now shows in spades. Everything else is engineering refinement and leveraging of those innovations.
Without such game-changing innovation for a few years, the “what have you done for me lately?” tech industry yearns for something else to stir the excitement. Samsung is as close as we have. After all, it is pushing the Android platform beyond Google’s vision, adding smaller-scale innovations (I’d call them inventions) such as the S 4′s ability to use the LED sensor to detect gross motions, including hand waves above the screen, for touchless gestures. Ironically, Apple pioneered that innovation in the iPhone; that’s how it knows to answer a call when you bring it to your face. Samsung just found more uses for it. Samsung was also inventive in using the LED as a beam for bar codes for older 2D scanners, such as those used for coupons at grocery stores.
In defending his claim of Samsung’s innovations, Borg cites those inventions, and I agree – Samsung deserves kudos for them. Of the Android device makers, Samsung best understands that software and services are what users want, not just hardware. But I don’t see those inventions as sufficient to take the innovation crown from Apple (even if you believe Apple has relinquished the title since Steve Jobs died, which I do not).
For the record, Borg’s thinking is more nuanced than his blog post indicates. We talked after he posted his story, and he clarified:
If you define innovation (in smartphones) as the introduction of new technology bundled with software that exploits technology to provide new capabilities that can fundamentally change the human/machine interface, then I think Samsung has excelled in this arena, whereas Apple has lost momentum. That’s not to say that they can regain it again, and plenty soon, but they really need to consider the frequency of the system updates, and Tim Cook’s apparent obsession with refinement over taking new risks. … The innovation mantle is more fleeting than Apple would like to admit, and Apple is fading.
That’s a fair critique of Apple, but most of what Samsung is doing is copying Apple: Media store, check. Wireless streaming, check. Cloud syncing, check. Media server, check. Unlike Apple, whose services work across OS X, iOS, and often Windows, Samsung’s clones work only on some models, not even across all Android or all Galaxy devices.
User experience should define features and innovation
The Galaxy line’s featuritis is not innovation, says Global Equities’ Chowdhry. In fact, he calls it an “irritation,” a “hodgepodge” of capabilities that differ from device to device and aren’t really integrated across devices — a problem that the Android world has faced both across and within vendor offerings since the beginning. Chowdhry also blasts Samsung for not starting with user experience, but instead acting like a hardware vendor and piling on features, just like the featurephones of yesteryear that befuddled so many people and ended up being used only to make voice calls.
He is particularly critical of the IR-based face movement detection that has enraptured the blogosphere. That feature stops a video from playing when you avert your eyes from the screen. Chowdhry says the constant start and stop will be highly annoying, as people glance away when someone speaks or to reach for their popcorn. He says Samsung has fundamentally misread how people use video: “It’s a lean-back experience, a multifunction experience, yet Samsung assumes you keep your eyes glued to the screen.”
That all adds up to a bad user experience. It’s also why his conversations with more than 40 attendees after the Galaxy S 4 reveal found that no existing Galaxy S III owners were particularly thrilled with the incremental updates in the S 4 and no iPhone users were tempted to switch: “Only BlackBerry users said the S 4 was great.”
I don’t want to take away from Samsung’s efforts to advance its increasingly distinct version of the Android platform. Samsung is being inventive, and not just with hardware. Apple has had its own usability flaws, such as Apple Maps. But that doesn’t make Samsung the king of innovation.
If Samsung isn’t the new innovation leader, is Apple?
What about Apple? Is it an innovation leader that’s been prematurely abandoned by a shortsighted tech industry because it’s been unable to dramatically change the world in the last two or three years? That’s less clear. Chowdhry doesn’t know what Apple is working on — nor does anyone else, no matter what you might read.
Chowdhry is very critical of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s actions after Steve Jobs’ death. Cook switched emphasis from users to stockholders, sending a signal that Apple was no longer focused on user-oriented innovation, he argues. Chowdhry cites Apple’s decisions to issue dividends to stockholders, an action usually limited to companies that have stopped growing.
He also cites Cook’s presence at trade shows and financial earnings calls, but not at the Apple Stores that have become the clubroom for Apple users and the Apple experience. Last year, Apple Store employees were highly demotivated as the management grew more traditional, and on Cook’s watch, Apple opened its flagship new Apple Store in Palo Alto, Calif., without a bathroom for buyers — Apple staff told them to go next door to Starbucks. “You never tell customers to go somewhere else,” Chowdhry says. All that signaled a shift from Jobs’ customer-centric style.
For Chowdhry, the most significant innovation is done by taking things away — radical simplification, a Jobs hallmark that propelled the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and iTunes, as well as reignited the Mac. If Apple returns to that thinking, its position as the innovation leader is more assured.
Chowdhry sees a few signs that Apple has learned from the ill-advised shift to the shareholder last year and is refocusing on user experience, though not always where you might expect. For example, one major frustration among Apple users is the wait — often weeks long — for a new Mac, iPhone, or iPad. Part of that wait is due to a centralized supply chain that requires everything be sent to China for assembly, then shipped backed out. He expects Apple to begin manufacturing in several locations across the globe, in factories that can adapt to demand more quickly, as automakers learned to do years ago. (Apple is already making some iMacs in California.) Chowdhry notes that 85 percent of the manufacturing work is done by robots that can work anywhere, and the talent exists nearly anywhere to manage them — the Chinese have no lock on that. In fact, Germany and the United States are the leaders in such manufacturing.
Chowdhry also suspects the rumors are true that Apple will move at least some A6 chip production to Intel’s Oregon fabrication plants, which would support such multipoint manufacturing. This action would further decouple Apple from Samsung, the rival that processes much of Apple’s hardware and thus gets an early peek at Apple technologies it then figures out how to duplicate before anyone else.
Reinventing the supply chain could be an innovation of the magnitude of the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, or the iPad, each of which truly transformed their markets. It would also improve the Apple user experience.
That’s one innovation Apple may be undertaking in what Chowdhry calls a “fix-it year.” As new iPads and iPhones are revealed this year, we’ll see if Apple is still the innovation leader. If not, the field’s wide open. Samsung has not truly stepped into the role, nor have Microsoft, Google, and BlackBerry, even if each has contributed useful inventions.