Who Is To Blame For Samsung’s Bad Fortune?

As the profits plunged on Samsung’s smartphone business, the web has been awash with reasons.

Ben Bajarin has shown very nicely that the largest problem that Samsung faces is the decline of the high-end business, which is also mentioned by a Samsung executive in the Guardian article.

The high-end of the business has been dominated by Samsung and Apple and still is. This means that there are two possibilities.

  1. Apple took away Samsung’s sales in the high-end. That is to say, users of high-end Android phones (who were mostly using Samsung devices) switched to the iPhone.
  2. The high-end market for Android smartphones saw a sudden shrinking. That is to say, mid-range smartphones were perceived as good enough and hence there was no need for customers to purchase high-end Galaxy devices anymore.

I suspect that both of these happened but I want to analyze them in isolation because it makes the situation easier to understand. Although these two look similar, they are actually very different. The first means that Apple was able to steal market share away from Samsung. The second means that vendors of mid-range smartphones (including Samsung of course) captured the customers who previously bought high-end phones. We will look at each separately.

Apple is stealing away the high-end

This is obviously happening. All reports point to Apple selling huge numbers of iPhones and it has been suggested that a lot of these are switchers who have abandoned Android phones.

The important thing is why. Of course the triggering event is the increased screen size of the iPhone 6. However, what is more important is why couldn’t Samsung match the iPhone 6 before Apple threw down the gauntlet. Why was Samsung left clinging to screen size as the only feature that could keep it competitive in the high-end.

Although design and/or Apple’s brand could well be a factor, it is also as likely that iOS and its app ecosystem could have been perceived to be superior than Android. If this was the case, then the blame would have to be put onto Google. Google failed to create an operating system and ecosystem that was competitive against iOS. The only reason that the high-end Android market existed at all was because Samsung had large screens while Apple did not.

If it was design or branding, then it would be harder to place the blame on either Samsung and Google simply because Apple is so good at these. Either way though, the result is that the high-end Android market cannot exist anymore.

The high-end Android market is shrinking

This is a completely different dynamic. If this were the case, then we should be seeing customers who previously owned the flagship Galaxy devices either downgrade to mid-range Android devices or to extend their replacement cycle. I have not yet seen a statistic that suggests that this is happening, but it is plausible.

This can only happen if Android smartphone hardware is starting to be considered as good enough, even by previous high-end purchasers. This also has to happen while at the same time, on the Apple side of the fence, Apple customers are not considering iOS hardware to be good enough. There must be something very different happening to Android customers and iOS customers.

The good enough of hardware is determined by software. If the software can take advantage of new hardware and create a true benefit for the customer, then old hardware will not be good enough. On the other hand, if the software does not have any compelling features that require new hardware, then old hardware will be good enough. No matter how much the hardware improves, whether customers will demand it depends on software.

In the case of iOS, the OS made full use of the 64-bit hardware to enable much faster processing of photos and movies. The OS made use of the TouchID sensor, which is also now being used by the Apple Pay service. Apple has given each piece of new hardware a significant reason for existing, and that is why customers want new devices.

On the Android side, that has not been the case. Google has not moved quickly to 64-bit, it has not worked hard on corporate level security, and it has not introduced software support for biometric sensor technology. Instead, Google has introduced a lot of software technologies that enable low-powered devices to smoothly run the latest operating system. Instead of adding new features that would take advantage of new high-end hardware, they focused on making sure that the mid-range and low-end hardware would be able to run the latest operating system and to take advantage of all of its features. In summary, Google actively designed their new operating system so that Samsung would have a hard time differentiating itself.

Although I’m not sure whether Google did this intentionally, it has made it very difficult for high-end Android smartphones to compete with mid-range ones. This is not only a challenge for Samsung, but it will also be a challenge for any OEM that plans to move upmarket. It will mean that companies like Huawei, Lenovo and Xiaomi will not be able to move up-market unless they gain significant control of the OS.

So what should we blame?

I think that Google was targeting the low-end from the start, but Andy Rubin was not. I genuinely think that Andy Rubin was much more focused on the high-end and he didn’t seriously consider making Android work better on low-end devices. I think he wanted to make Android as good as or even better than iOS. The fact that his reign coincided with when Samsung was strongest is no coincidence.

When Andy Rubin was removed and Sundar Pichai took over, it became rather clear that instead of fighting with iOS, Android would focus on the low-end. In fact, most products that Google creates (many of which were under the supervision of Sundar) aim at the very low-end where prices are normally zero. Google Docs is a prime example of this, as is Chrome OS. Google’s strategy is to commoditize all markets except for search and advertising, by providing a good enough product for free.

Samsung could have tried harder to take control of Android so that they could create software that took advantage of high-end software. In fact, they tried. Considering that Samsung was mainly a hardware company, I don’t think that they ever misunderstood that they needed good software; it was just that they didn’t have the resources or the culture to create great software. It’s hard to blame their strategic thinking for this.

Google could have tried harder to preserve the high-end. However, it’s priorities were clearly in the low-end. It’s hard to focus on both.

I would say that the only strategy that we could actually blame was Samsung’s decision to team up with Android. Samsung should have seen that Google would ultimately aim to commoditize their own OS and all hardware vendors using their platform. Samsung should not have helped Android to gain market share, and instead waited for a contender whose priorities aligned better with Samsung’s goals. Of course, that is what Nokia did.