Samsung Style

James Allworth, author and expert on disruptive innovation, has a great post on the blog Asymco titled “The real threat that Samsung poses to Apple.” In it, he refers to an earlier article by John Gruber on Daring Fireball that asks whether Apple’s product design or operational model is their most important advantage. Gruber concluded that it was Apple’s operational strength “that is furthest ahead of their competition, and the more sustainable advantage.” Products can be copied; capabilities can’t.

Or can they? Allworth draws a connection between Samsung’s status as a major Apple supplier and their emergence as Apple’s most (perhaps only) formidable competitor in smartphones. The patent lawsuits over whether Samsung’s products copied Apple’s designs, he says, are a distraction. The real threat to Apple is that Samsung, as one of its key suppliers over the last five years, may have learned to build the critical capabilities it takes to develop and rapidly ramp manufacturing of huge volumes of incredibly powerful and beautiful smartphones at low cost – no doubt one of the most difficult feats in business. As Allworth says, “Perhaps [Samsung] didn’t have to copy Apple. What happens if Apple had already taught them?”

The ramifications of this can be seen in the history of other tech giants. Allworth quotes his book, cowritten with Clay Christensen, in describing the dangers of increasing outsourcing to a key supplier over time:

Asus came to Dell and said, “We’ve done a good job fabricating these motherboards for you. Why don’t you let us assemble the whole computer for you, too? Assembling those products is not what’s made you successful. We can take all the remaining manufacturing assets off your balance sheet, and we can do it all for 20 percent less.”

The Dell analysts realized that this, too, was a win- win…

That process continued as Dell outsourced the management of its supply chain, and then the design of its computers themselves. Dell essentially outsourced everything inside its personal-computer business—everything except its brand— to Asus. Dell’s Return on Net Assets became very high, as it had very few assets left in the consumer part of its business.

Then, in 2005, Asus announced the creation of its own brand of computers. In this Greek-tragedy tale, Asus had taken everything it had learned from Dell and applied it for itself. It started at the simplest of activities in the value chain, then, decision by decision, every time that Dell outsourced the next lowest-value-adding of the remaining activities in its business, Asus added a higher value-adding activity to its business.

In other words, in Dell’s own quest to cede lower-value work to a supplier, it helped that supplier forward-integrate into higher-value work and become a competitor. Fast-forward to the present, and according to Gartner, Dell’s share of PC shipments fell from 16.4% leadership in 2005 to 10.5% last quarter, while Asus has risen from nothing to to 7.3%. Dell built the staircase for its supplier to climb until it was no longer just a supplier. Allworth wonders whether Apple is falling into the same trap with Samsung.

Now, Apple is not yet outsourcing to Samsung (or any one supplier) nearly as much of its value chain as Dell had to Asus by the time Asus was able to launch its own brand. Other differences between the cases abound, so some have criticized Allworth’s post for positing based on a weak analogy with an N of 1 (see his post’s comments).

But what if there’s a pattern? What if Samsung had, in fact, done this before?

In a separate, far-ranging article, the investigative journalists at the Japan Subculture Research Center sought to untie the numerous possible causes of the long, horrifying decline of Sony, once the world’s preeminent consumer electronics company but which expects to lose $6.4 billion this year. Their analysis homes in on the tenure of CEO Nobuyuki Idei from 1999 to 2005, who restructured the company and eliminated many key engineers. According to Sony insiders, these were gobbled up by Samsung, the rising South Korean conglomerate which had become a major component supplier to Sony for technology such as LCD panels.

These panels were used in large flatscreen TVs – last decade’s equivalent of smartphones, in terms of how their huge popularity drove fierce technological innovation and manufacturing capability development. As one Sony veteran put it, “It was better than industrial espionage—Samsung could openly ‘buy’ the technology that Sony had developed simply by rehiring their best and brightest.” An investor remembers a key meeting with Idei:

When the investor pointed out that Sony’s operating profits on electronic products were roughly 2-4% and that Samsung was making similar products at a 30% profit margin, Idei hushed him by saying, “They make the parts for our products. We put them together. It’s the difference between a steel maker and an automobile maker. We make the automobiles.”

The investor countered, “Well, I’ve got news for you—the people you laid off from the car plant are now working at the steel mill, and soon the steel mills will be building cars with your technology.”

In the early 2000s, of course, Samsung forward-integrated and began building high-quality LCD HDTVs at lower cost than dominant Sony. By the middle of the decade it had surpassed its erstwhile customer and partner. This year, Samsung’s share of the category is 29%, while Sony has fallen to 8%. As pundits have noted, “The speed with which Samsung has overtaken its competitors is fairly remarkable.”

Apple has since replaced Sony as the world’s largest and most respected consumer electronics company. This situation is not perfectly comparable – for example, there is no evidence that Samsung is hiring key Apple engineers. But Samsung has become one of Apple’s most important suppliers, and is now also by far its most significant competitor. We’ve seen this movie before. This is Samsung’s style.

As Allworth puts it, this is no longer about whether Samsung aims to use its supplier experience with Apple to replicate its capabilities advantage. The key question is “is it already too late?”

It’s the Brand, Stupid

There’s a lot of discussion going on about whether – and why – consumers will choose to buy tablets (mostly running Android) other than the iPad, and, to a lesser extent, smartphones (mostly running Android) other than the iPhone. As usual, pundits and analysts predict that Apple’s dominance must inevitably erode, while John Gruber (@daringfireball) and a few others argue that they’re wrong. Gruber calls the debate “perhaps, the most polarizing topic of punditry in tech today.”

The pundits’ argument is based on sensible Econ and Strategy 101: Apple is making a killing now, but that’s because it was first out of the gate with these products, and without some kind of protective moat, all good things must pass, right? Apple doesn’t seem to have an insurmountable barrier or killer app (like iTunes with the iPod). Therefore, the fast followers will catch up on Apple’s hardware capabilities and apps, and price-compete their way to share. The only question is how long it will take.

One big counterargument, of course, is that Apple has core competencies that not only got it out of the gates first, but enable it to run faster too – particularly in innovation and design. By the time Samsung caught up to the iPad, the iPad 2 was already around the next corner.

In the tablet market, Gruber, John Paczkowski and others make a second argument too – that catching up to Apple isn’t good enough. To really win, a competitor like Samsung, RIM, or Dell has to provide a good answer to the question “why should somebody buy this instead of an iPad?” But this only hints at the much bigger moat Apple’s built around itself: its brand.

Many techies see a brand as an elaborate marketing ploy companies use to appeal to the emotional part of consumers’ minds, and a lagging indicator of success. In other words, you can fool consumers for a while, but your brand will stay strong only if the products are; either way, a brand doesn’t itself create lasting success.

This misapprehends what a brand really is: a promise in the mind of consumers. Unlike, say, five years ago, today most of the extremely high value of Apple’s brand doesn’t come from its ads, its fanboys, or even its retail stores. It comes from average consumers’ experiences.

Imagine a non-techie thinking about buying a new smartphone or a portable computer. Even if she’s never been in an Apple store, there’s a decent chance she got an iPod Nano as a present at one point. More importantly, she almost certainly knows many people who have bought an iMac, iPod, iPhone, MacBook, or iPad over the past decade, in various versions and combinations.

What impression of Apple has this given her? Almost certainly, it’s been overwhelmingly positive, because Apple hasn’t launched a crummy new product in a long time – and that includes both new-category (iPad 1) and next-gen (iPhone 3GS) devices. And here’s the key – when it comes to sales, it’s OK to have a bunch of misses, so long as you have a few big hits. But with a brand, misses hurt. People hate wasting money, and they know they’re taking a risk when they buy a major new piece of technology, same as when they go to a pricey new restaurant. If people talk about how a product kind of sucks, that won’t just hurt sales of that product – it hurts sales of the next one too. The opposite is also true.

Four or five years ago, even if you heard great things about Apple products, it was still acceptable to brush them off – sure, the iPod was cool, but I’m not sure about this new phone. But now, in consumers’ minds, Apple has been batting pretty close to a thousand for a decade. And that’s its best asset – the fact that you can’t sneeze without hitting five people who’ll tell you they love their iPad, will never switch from their iPhone, or that their Macbook “just works” – and zero who say otherwise. In other words, it’s the brand. We’ve been surrounded by great Apple experiences for so long now, we’ve been trained what to expect – if Apple announced it was coming out with a washer/dryer, we’d laugh, but we’d also immediately form some positive expectations about how it would look and function.

That’s why it’s getting harder to defend buying anything but an Apple product: simply because you can be confident you’ll like it. Tech mavens might always be willing to adopt the “best” product, but most consumers are more wary. If Samsung, RIM, Dell, or anyone else today announced a tablet that had 13 good reasons why everyone should buy it instead of an iPad, tomorrow most people would still buy iPads, because the one reason that really matters to the average Joe is risk. Technology is complicated and often disappointing, but Apple’s brand credibly promises people that they’ll love the next thing they buy that has a little bitten apple on it. Other tech brands can’t do that without sounding like the Boy Who Cried Wolf. And one great product won’t close the credibility gap – they’ll need a decade of great products, with almost no misses. The kind of trust Apple’s built up creates incredible momentum. That’s why the “tablet market” is Apple’s to lose.