Samsung Electronics did about $140 billion in revenue in 2011. They’re the biggest tech company in the world by revenue. They make everything from cameras to telecom gear to TVs. They are also the second-biggest semiconductor company in the world and even make the microprocessors for Apple’s iPhone and iPad. Samsung has 160,000 employees, and 40,000 of them work in R&D. There are Samsung design centers in seven cities around the world. And, just recently, Samsung leapfrogged Apple to become the biggest seller of smartphones in the world.
So I wonder sometimes if people at Samsung resent the way Apple and its cadre of increasingly nasty fanboy bloggers keep deriding Samsung as some kind of backwater knock-off shop, a cheap Asian cloner that, as Apple put it in a lawsuit, “slavishly copied” Apple to make its products. To hear Apple and its fans tell it, Samsung is the high-tech equivalent of those factories in China that crank out fake Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton bags to be sold on Canal Street in New York.
The latest example is on Daring Fireball, a blog penned by John Gruber, a hardcore Apple fanboy. Responding to news that Samsung just turned in a barnburner fourth quarter, Gruber wrote:
So Jony Ive leads the design team at the two most-profitable phone makers. Impressive.
This is typical snarky Gruber stuff. But it’s so arrogant and patronizing that when I read it was brought up short. Because I realized, this guy isn’t joking. Gruber and people like him really believe that Samsung just sits around making copies of Apple products. In their view, Apple is the fountain from which all creativity flows, and Samsung just follows behind, stealing their ideas.
Thing is, over the summer I had a chance to use a Samsung Galaxy S II. That phone could not have been a copy of the iPhone 4S because it came out nearly a half a year before the 4S. But maybe the GSII was a clone of the iPhone 4? Sure enough, they are remarkably similar devices, except for a few tiny details — like the fact that the GSII has a much bigger screen, a faster processor, more RAM, a better camera, an NFC chip, FM radio, a removable battery, a MicroSD slot and support for MHL. Oh, and it’s thinner and weighs less. The screen technologies are different. The cases are different. The GSII is plastic, with no stainless steel wrapper, no glass back panel, no metal volume buttons and no metal toggle switch for muting.
Otherwise, okay, total knockoff.
Even after the iPhone 4S shipped, most of the differences remained in place. Apple caught up in the camera department. But the GSII is still thinner and lighter, with a bigger screen, faster processor and more RAM. If the GSII is a Jony Ive product, you have to wonder why he’s saving his best work for the employer that doesn’t pay him.
The differences become wider (literally) with two newer devices from Samsung — the Galaxy Nexus, which is even bigger than the GSII, and the ridiculously ginormous 5.3-inch Galaxy Note, which is about to arrive in the U.S. Apple purists no doubt find the Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy Note appalling. But a lot of people love them. De gustibus non disputandum est, as they say. These devices certainly can’t be called knockoffs — Apple doesn’t make anything like them. If anything, with these new phones, Samsung is pushing the envelope on form factor and taking more risk than Apple.
You might be shocked to learn that Samsung actually employs its own designers. Back in the early 1990s Samsung recognized the importance of industrial design and started hiring hundreds of designers and building design centers around the world — Seoul, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, Milan and Shanghai. Here’s a BusinessWeek article from 2004 describing Samsung’s efforts. Samsung also reached out to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena to set up an in-house university for Samsung designers. Samsung sent young designers around the world (Florence, Milan, Egypt, India, Paris, Frankfurt) to tour museums and study architecture. They sent people to work in fashion houses, cosmetics companies and furniture makers in Europe.
These articles are worth a read, if only to see that Samsung has been building toward this for a long time. In fact for the past few years has been winning a lot of awards for design — sometimes even more than Apple.
Sure, Apple fans make a pretty good case that some Samsung products look a lot like Apple products. But when Apple scored a victory in Germany against the Galaxy Tab, Samsung quickly made a minor change that a judge indicated would be sufficient to get out from under Apple’s complaint. Samsung, meanwhile, alleges that Apple has stepped on its patents. The lawsuits between Apple and Samsung are going to take a long time to play out, and it’s foolish to try to predict the outcome.
Apple has been making essentially the same phone, with the same 3.5-inch screen size, since 2007. It’s a great phone. But Samsung is making dozens of phones and experimenting with different form factors. They must find it rich to have Apple, with its one design, accusing Samsung of lacking fresh ideas. Samsung must also love it when Apple, which can’t manufacture its own chips, or any components for that matter, has the chutzpah to slag off the engineering prowess of the company it relies upon for microprocessors. Samsung’s flagship devices — GSII, Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy Note — bear no resemblance to Apple’s iPhone. No one would ever confuse one for the other. Inside the case they’re even more different. Dismissing Samsung as a bunch of thieving cloners is ridiculous and stupid, and only proves one thing: Steve is gone, but the reality distortion field lives on.