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Innovate or stagnate: Why your next phone will suck if Samsung beats Apple

innovate or stagnate header iphone galaxy s3 galaxy tab 10.1 ipad 3 apple samsungThe core of Apple’s litigation with Samsung stems from a very real problem: Samsung is getting stronger at Apple’s expense. Apple has resorted to litigation to offset this problem. If Samsung manages to take a bite of Apple, it wouldn’t be the first victim. The Korean company pretty much did the exact same thing to Sony in the TV market. While I could argue most of Sony’s problems originated in Sony, Samsung is clearly making these problems worse.

In the long term, the issue of copying can kill an industry, particularly with a company like Apple that builds markets. On the other hand, Apple needs to realize very quickly that it will need to up its game to overcome the issue, not just lawyer up. Samsung and others have learned to game the system. If Apple doesn’t adjust for that, it will end in deep, Sony-level trouble.

Apple was built on theft

Both Apple and Microsoft essentially built their businesses on technologies stolen from Xerox’s PARC. Apple took the ideas for the mouse and graphical user interface from Xerox, and Microsoft in turn took them from Apple. But this was almost a case of stealing someone’s garbage; Xerox’s PARC, like a lot of labs, didn’t have a clue what to do with much of what was developed. The company thought GUIs and mice were stupid and useless. You could also argue that, had Apple licensed these technologies rather than stealing them, it might have received exclusive rights and been able to block Windows in court. Of course, it’s hard to tell. Alternately, offering to license the technologies might have shown Xerox the value, and it might have charged Apple more than the fledgling company could afford. Or, it may have just licensed the technology to Microsoft earlier, which would have likely caused Apple to fail in the 1980s.

So Apple was built on theft, but it still performed the hard work to build the market. In other words, Apple’s investment to build PCs was much higher than Xerox’s.

Samsung is a better thief

Samsung doesn’t build markets. It enters after a market is built, then games it to take a leadership position. While this hasn’t worked with PCs (that segment is just too diverse now), it pulled it off with TVs, taking the market from Sony. (You could also argue Sony did the same thing to RCA.) Samsung also appears to have done it with smartphones like the iPhone, and it is trying to do it with tablets.

galaxy tab v ipad samsung apple tabletIf you look at a Galaxy 10 tablet and hold it against an iPad, I think you will see that Samsung effectively made a better-looking iPad. A friend of mine bought one the other day and commented, “I can’t figure out how to get the damn thing to work.” While the appearance of the two products is similar – Samsung’s may even be better looking — the user experience with the Galaxy 10 is far worse. That means the consumer is getting screwed.

Now, you could blame this on Google, which clearly made a poor copy of iOS. But this is very different than what Apple initially did when it ripped off Xerox. Apple built the market with a ton of money and hard work. Samsung is attempting to steal existing value with an inferior product.

This is how Asian companies originally moved into automotive and consumer-electronics markets. They initially build good-looking cheap crap, and over time, improved quality so much so that Lexus is now the top-rated car in the US. Hyundai is trending to eventually match Lexus. Sony eventually displaced RCA and GE as top consumer technology providers, and in both cases accepted the responsibility to build markets with their leadership.

The Samsung problem

Samsung still appears to be slip streaming on the work of others. The company should be driving the TV market, but its leadership in the segment appears to have helped stall progress instead. Samsung doesn’t know how to drive markets after it conquers them, which isn’t great for consumers. If it significantly beats everyone else in smartphones and tablets, we would likely see those markets stagnate as well. That would be bad for everyone, including Samsung.

iphone prototype apple samsung court case iphone galaxy s3In addition, Samsung still seems to want to game the market rather than put in good value. It could do what Amazon did and create a massively improved user experience on their products to match or even exceed Apple’s, but that would cost money. It would rather let Apple do the work. To Samsung, “customer satisfaction” apparently just means assuring that no one gets vocal enough to drive away new customers.

Ultimately, Samsung beating Apple would be bad for anyone that loves high-quality products. For whatever reason, Samsung is still a knockoff company across the board. Its appliances look good, but typically have low customer satisfaction scores, and are very difficult to get repaired. Its TVs are good and inexpensive, but you look elsewhere for technical leadership. Its tablets and smartphones are attractive, but lag badly on user experience.

Why you should care

If Samsung wins yet another market, the products in it will drift into an uninteresting standstill. Love or hate Apple, the company fields a quality product, with arguably the best customer experience on the planet. Efforts like Amazon’s Kindle and even Google’s Nexus 7 at least try to match both build quality and experience quality. Microsoft is trying to go one step further with its Surface Tablets, and actually improve on the user experience. We can applaud all efforts, because they will drive the industry to improve and we’ll get better stuff at lower prices over time. Samsung represents a path where technology will stagnate and cost will rule the day. The result may still be lower prices, but they’ll suck the fun out of the market. I just don’t see how you could root for that.

The most recent legal battle illustrate that Apple is not set up well to defend against a company like Samsung, any more than GM was set up to defend against Toyota, or Sony to defend against Samsung. But it’s in all our interests for Apple continues to up its game and improve – and in its best interest too.

Litigation is a fall-back defense against a company like Samsung. The fact that Apple has to use it means it isn’t moving fast enough, and Samsung is able to get close. Samsung will eventually either buy RIM or do something else that removes litigation as an Apple weapon – they are good at gaming systems after all. If Apple isn’t moving faster by then, we’re all screwed.

Guest contributor Rob Enderle is the founder and principal analyst for the Enderle Group, and one of the most frequently quoted tech pundits in the world. Opinion pieces denote the opinions of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Digital Trends.