The irony of Samsung’s dominance
Google is riding high on Samsung's success with Android. But all that could change. By Steven Ambrose.
Let’s make a mobile operating that will rival Apple’s iOS, and let’s give it away for free. Clever thinking by Google, at the time. As of early 2013, Google’s Android operating system has come to dominate smartphones worldwide, with Samsung taking the lion’s share of this dominance. The irony is almost palpable.
Google has done a magnificent job. Android 4.2.2 is almost every bit as good as anything else on the market (read: iOS, Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8, and the others). Google Play is as big as the Apple App Store and as full of good-quality apps. Google services are useful, clever and cutting edge, and almost always just that little bit better on Android than on the iPhone.
Samsung has relentlessly and single-mindedly taken over the smartphone space. In the past three years, Samsung has gone from a middle-of-the-road player with multiple operating systems under its belt to become the dominant, by some margin, Android smart device player.
The Samsung Galaxy range has been a masterpiece of marketing and execution. They have great product names and great features and show insight into what people are looking for at almost every price level, a feat no other company has been able to replicate. The momentum and the hype overshadows the fact that there is nothing particularly unique or innovative about Samsung devices, even taking into account the new Galaxy S4.
Don’t get me wrong, the S4 is a technical tour de force. Samsung has taken all the very latest technical bits and packed them into a slick polycarbonate case. More importantly, it’s also tricked out the Galaxy S4 with every possible software option.
Health is trending, so let’s create a hub and throw a whole lot of software and accessories at the problem. Cameras. Boy, does Samsung do cameras, so it threw as much clever software at the S4 as possible. Overall, there are few if any competitors that can, or have done, such a comprehensive job.
What is clear is that the tremendous success of Android, and its very openness, has allowed a clever, ambitious and very successful company to corner its market.
All the clever software Google has come up with Samsung has essentially replicated and called it S this and S that. In fact, almost every innovation from any platform has been replicated by Samsung in one form or another. Voice? Samsung has S-Voice. Camera? Smart this and Smart that, with more options than you could ever use in one day.
In combination with all the add-ons and hubs, for movies, music, health and other services, Samsung is clearly moving as fast as it can into the software and services space. At the recent Samsung Africa Forum in Cape Town, it was clear that despite all the new shiny gadgets, which included fridges, washing machines, and tons of other technological marvels, the underlying message was software and services. Couple these services with integration across platforms, and product lines, from TV and airconditioning to cellular, and a kind of magic ensues.
Marketing terms such as “smart interaction”, “smart content” and “smart evolution” abounded at the Africa Forum as well as at the lavish Galaxy S4 launch in New York. Reading deeper though, these were not just examples of marketing hyperbole, but a glimpse of the future Samsung is trying to serve up.
Imagine a universe of products, all aware of each other, all interacting and anticipating your needs, and working together in a way that would actually make your life easier. This is Samsung’s master plan. Samsung as a company is also almost unique in its ability to deliver such a future, as it controls an entire spectrum of technologies, from mobile to computer to home appliances.
Back to Google. The runaway success of Android in the smartphone space is fast becoming Samsung’s success. As Samsung continues to grow in the mobile space, and all indications are that it will, the base operating system will become less and less important. At some point, Samsung may well decide to change the base layer for one it controls, such as its Tizen platform. Right now, Google still has the balance of power and may still have the resources and scale to outplay Samsung in the services space.
That window is rapidly closing and we can’t forget the big gorilla in the room. Apple still has an iron grip on the mobile and tablet ecosystem, with loyal (in fact, evangelical) support from its fans that others can’t reach — not even Samsung. Couple this with a huge stockpile of clever people and lots of cash, we may still see some more disruption from the brains at Infinite Loop.
The lesson here is that in most cases the best laid plans of Google and men often take turns that no one can anticipate. BlackBerry dominated enterprise and Nokia dominated mobile, and that was as recent as three years ago. Right now it’s an Apple and Samsung party. Who knows what’s coming up next. My sense is that whatever is coming will most probably be Chinese.