Samsung's Delusions of Relevance

I've been wrestling with the right way to put this for weeks. There was something about Samsung that's been bugging me since the Bizarro World media event to introduce the Galaxy S4 back in March, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

At first I was thinking the company had delusions of grandeur, but that wasn't it. Samsung really is a grand company. It has accomplished a lot, and the company has innovative hardware in a number of industries.

Then I started thinking that Samsung was suffering from delusions that it could be Apple, and it clearly has delusional aspirations in building an ecosystem around its smartphones. Neither of those bullet points was the thing that was bugging me. I had something specific niggling the back of my brain, and I wanted to find that crystalline way of expressing it.

It hit me yesterday after reading about Samsung's Smart App Challenge 2013: Samsung has delusions of relevance.

Samsung Co-CEO Lee Kun-hee

Lee Kun-hee—one of Samsung's three CEOs—and our artist's rendition of his custom vision-aids.


That's what has been bugging me for a while now. Samsung has been strutting around as if it has accomplished something significant, but the reality is that it hasn't, at least not in the world of smartphones.

At this point, I'll understand if you dismiss me as someone with my own delusions. After all, Samsung has the biggest chunk of global smartphone sales, and the company's share of smartphone profits is second only to Apple. Both shares have been growing, too, in part because of Samsung's success at the high end of the market with the Galaxy Note II and both the Galaxy S3 and the new Galaxy S4.

Hear me out, because that's nothing more than a short term look at a tiny sliver of the big picture, and it's the big picture where I think there's some cognitive dissonance happening in Seoul.

Let's go back to the GS4 media event. I wrote a lengthy piece talking about how weird that event was with its awful skits, casual misogamy, and weird pacing. It was also weird due to the absence of a key player, Google.

Samsung didn't mention Google once, and it didn't mention Android, either. Not once. The company didn't even mention Google Now, the killer app for Android in my not-at-all humble opinion. Samsung should have been singing the message that the GS4 is the best Google Now device on the planet.

Instead, Samsung focused on its own software features that it piles on top of Android. The fascinating thing is that a couple of those features are redundant to features built in to Android.

Let's take a moment to think about that. The level of hubris required for Samsung to put S Voice on top of Android's far better voice control and interaction is staggering. The same is true for S Translator.

Apples and Oranges

But wait! I can hear some of you ask. That's what Apple did with Maps when it replaced the Google-powered original Maps app with its in-house Maps app. If you want hubris, I still hear you say, look no further than Apple!

The two situations are not only different, they speak to my broader point. While Apple flubbed the Maps rollout—Apple Maps should have been introduced as a beta alongside the Google-powered service until it was ready—the reality is that Apple has the power, the talent, and ability to make Apple Maps a best-in-class service.

Does anyone think that S Translator will ever be as good, let alone better, than Google Translate? Will S Voice ever be as good as either Apple's Siri or Google's voice controls?

I certainly don't, and that's the other part of this comparison. Apple's move was predicated on the hard fact that it couldn't leave a core service like mapping on its mobile OS remain under the control of a bitter rival like Google.

Apple had to take over Maps in iOS so that it could control feature updates. Apple couldn't allow those feature updates to be bargaining chips as they had become between Apple and Google.

Google was in the position to use those bargaining chips to try to gain access to customer data while simultaneously using those features to make Android more attractive.

Samsung can't make those arguments because Samsung licenses Android. Samsung doesn't control the software for its hardware, and there is no Samsung ecosystem. There's no real benefit to pulling out individual pieces of that software—or in this case piling on RAM-gobbling redundant software features—that I can see.

(As an aside, that's why I'm so excited about Google's de-Samsunged GS4.)

Software Isn't Hardware

This is especially true when Samsung isn't good at the software side of things. An honest look at Apple will see a company that can make Maps great, but the best thing Samsung has done on the software side is to deliberately copy Apple, and that's not a legacy on which to build your future.

Samsung had a proprietary OS called Bada. That failed. Samsung's software interface that gets in the way of Android is called TouchWiz. No one likes it.

Samsung isn't a software company, it's a hardware company. Like Dell. Like HP. Like Asus. Like Acer. Like Gateway. Like HTC. Like Motorola Mobility. Like ZTC and Hauwei.

So when we go back to that media event, we get the feeling that Samsung thinks it can build its own ecosystem—perhaps with Android, or maybe with Tizen, the Linux-based mobile OS being backed by Intel, Samsung, and others.

Then there's Samsung Smart App Challenge 2013, where the company is putting up a cool US$800,000 in prizes for developers to make apps using a GS4-specific API called Group Play. This also suggests that Samsung thinks it can build an ecosystem around its hardware.

But it's nonsense. As noted above, Samsung is just a hardware OEM. Yes, they have coders (with no history of success). Despite Samsung's stunning success right now as a hardware OEM, despite the fact that it builds most of the components of its high end smartphones in-house and with subsidiaries, the lack of control over the software means that Samsung's Android dominance is fragile.

HTC could get it right and earn enough profits to eat away at Samsung's share. The Chinese OEMs could do the same. And if Google ever wakes up to the fact that it owns its own hardware division (Motorola Mobility), Samsung doesn't stand a chance.

Forking Android won't help judging by Samsung's lack of software success, and my prediction is that Tizen will end up being an expensive joke for all parties concerned.

Must Have Been the Right Place...

At the end of the day, Samsung remains a good hardware company that took advantage of being in the right place at the right time. The company's executives allowed themselves to mistake that for true relevance.

Don't feel bad for them, though. Samsung will always have its component business and crony capitalism stranglehold on the South Korean economy to fall back on.