Feb 14

Samsung and Apple: two flavors of innovation

What exactly defines an innovator these days?

Has Apple lost its title of “most innovative” because it hasn’t changed the world since 2010? Or does Samsung now own that title, even though it hasn’t changed the world since … uh, when was that again?

Obviously, innovation comes in many flavors.

Sometimes it’s about creating revolutions, other times it’s about adding features. Sometimes it’s about creating things that people fall in love with, other times it’s simply about creating things.

It’s because of the Samsung vs. Apple innovation debate that I’m so eager to see what will happen with the smartwatch category.

For the first time, no one can accuse Samsung of copying Apple as they did with iPhone and iPad. It literally beat Apple to the punch on this one.

When (and if) Apple unveils an iWatch, the world will finally see — in the starkest terms — the true difference between Samsung innovation and Apple innovation.

At least that’s how I felt before last week.

At the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona, Samsung did an excellent job of demonstrating one big difference all by itself.

Less than six months after launching the Galaxy Gear watch, Samsung announced it will replace that device with two models, the Gear 2 and the Gear 2 Neo. These aren’t just upgrades — they’re new watches, running a completely different OS. Android has been replaced by Samsung’s home-grown Tizen OS.

So what happens to the people who just months ago bought into Samsung’s last “next big thing”? Well, they get stuck with a Galaxy Gear, which will be quickly forgotten. They also become living proof that Samsung values innovation over customers.

Apple’s innovation philosophy is quite different. Its highest priority is creating a product that people can fall in love with — a product that will improve customers’ lives without frustrating them in the process.

There’s no timetable for that. It might be three years, as it was between iPhone and iPad. It might be six years, as it was between iPod and iPhone.

Samsung, on the other hand, believes innovation is a race that can be won by sheer force. It prioritizes on the number of models, the number of features and the number of innovations per year.

Of course, Apple loves features too. (Witness Siri, Touch ID, slo-mo video, etc.) The difference is, when Apple innovates, it’s innovating in the most user-centric way. That’s consistent with one thing I heard Steve Jobs say often: Apple’s highest priority is earning the love of its customers.

How much love do you think Samsung just generated by turning those relatively new Galaxy Gears into garage-sale items?

By its actions, Samsung is telling us that the device they only recently launched wasn’t the best they could do. But it was an innovation, and that’s what counts.

The bottom line is, it’s impossible to judge who’s leading in innovation by tallying products and features.

Meaningful innovation will forever be about quality, not quantity.

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  • nuthinking

    Wise words! On the other hand I can’t help thinking that the cost of few Galaxy Gears customers turned haters might be worthy if many more customers are gained in the more established products (TVs, fridges, phones). Looking innovative might be valuable, especially if you don’t know how to really improve people’s lives.

  • SuperMatt

    Innovate means to make changes to something established. The iPhone can truly be called innovative because it changed the status quo of cell phones completely. The iPad created a whole new alternative to the PC. Samsung’s watch hasn’t caused a change to the established watch market. 99% of people are still buying regular watches.

  • Andrew F.

    Interesting thoughts, Ken! I like when you post an article each week :).

    You could argue that miniaturizing smartphone components into something you can wear on your wrist is a form of breakthrough innovation, and of course, anything Apple does in this space will include that type of innovating. Couple points though:

    1. Samsung didn’t get there first. Several other companies have smartwatches that are at least as good (at least as bad?) as the Galaxy Gear.

    2. You can’t associate that kind of innovation with the kind of breakthroughs that made the post-PC revolution possible. The Galaxy Gear and it’s ilk are just small smartphones that you happen to wear on your wrist. The rest are simply proxies for notifications.

    3. Even with the added capabilities of a Galaxy Gear over something like a Pebble, they still only solve one problem: they allow you to glance notifications from the paired device.

    Regarding the last point, I just don’t see how a company can think they’re solving a real problem by placing notifications on your wrist, eliminating the unbearable burden of having to take your phone out of your pocket. *rolls eyes*. Even assuming great function and easy of use, this is a dubious job-to-be-done, and will remain an extremely niche, rich-geek product.

    Next up is Google’s attempt at a smartwatch which will be unveiled at their I/O conference in June, and it’s said that it will deploy their voice assistant Google Now which offers predictive and contextual notifications, where and when you need it. This does things like provide weather, email, texts, missed calls, flight info, reminders, and appointments. But here again it’s taking things you already do with your phone and solving the same “problem”: eliminate the need to reach for your phone. It’ll be, like the others, a niche product.

    For a product to break ground in these new territories it’s gonna have to be innately superior to a smartphone at the tasks it performs. It’ll also have to embrace the fact that everything orbits around the smartphone in this post-PC era. Then, of course, it’s going to have to do the basics much better than current offerings do: it has to be beautiful, comfortable, durable, long-lasting, and simple.

    What the iWatch might be conceptually:

    1. It’s probably going to be positioned as a health and fitness monitor with advanced location based features (i.e. interacting with iBeacons, indoor mapping, sending you coupons and offers from store-owned beacons).

    2. It’s medical breakthroughs will probably be its 2.0-3.0 innovations, and it’ll be what eventually starts getting sales to ramp up in a big way. If there was something that could compete with an iPhone in terms of consumer desirability, what would it be? It would be something that says “buy this device, and it’ll help you live longer/better” and it’ll look beautiful and fashionable doing it. One of the lost quotes in the Steve Jobs biography was his belief that the intersecting of biology was going to result in the biggest tech innovations of the 21st century.

    3. Do people really want to be putting their greasy fingers on their beautiful sapphire smartwatch? No, and I’d be surprised if this thing had any touch-based UI except maybe at an extremely rudimentary level. The iPhone/iPad will do the heavy lifting for iWatch, while the watch itself will have an extremely simple, possibly hardware-based UI, with a different type of display tech than the other iOS devices(i.e. More efficient, less capable, yet high res). The breakthrough here will be Bluetooth LE. The seamless integration between iWatch and iPhone/iPad using BLE will be amazing to behold.

    4. A big selling point of these devices will be the local commerce revolution Apple is setting up under our noses. iBeacons are being deployed by big companies through America as we speak, with brilliant use cases such as navigating you to your seat in a sports stadium (also, navigating you back to your car, once car owners start putting $20 beacons in their cars), and notifying users of special deals on products they walk by in stores. There are a million use cases that one can easily imagine using iBeacons(Find My Car, Find My Luggage, anyone?) and combined with Touch ID and whatever authorization iWatch will use to authenticate stuff, we’re on the verge of a new local commerce experience.

    5. It will use synthetic sapphire glass either as the primary material or else as a coating to make it durable, and as for things like comfort and design, well, I suspect the 1.0 product will be about nailing those over the longer-term technological goals. iWatch 1 will be about validating the category in a simple, beautiful, comfortable way.

    Sorry for the long post, but I’ve done more reading on this subject than I care to admit.

  • ksegall

    Wow, that’s some comment Andrew. Thanks.

    Your points are well taken, and make me all the more interested to see where this is headed.

    Also, I didn’t meant to imply that Samsung’s watch was the first — only that they got there before Apple. Funny, but one could actually argue that they might have benefited by letting Apple go first, just as they did with phones and tablets. If Apple lights the way again with iWatch, Samsung may have to reinvent their watch for a third time.

  • Andrew F.

    Thanks. Very much agree, you could argue waiting for Apple would benefit a lot of people waiting to sell a useful product. I actually think what Samsung is doing is part of why they’re successful. They’re clearly paying very close attention to Mark Gurman’s reporting over at 9to5Mac, if today’s Galaxy Gear Fit is any indication.

    Again, sorry for the loooong post, i take no offense if you don’t bother to read the thing, I just had all that muddled in my mind and needed to get it out somewhere.

  • immovableobject

    Apple’s innovation is about being the first to perfect and combine a set of features into an iconic design that becomes a template for everyone else. They did it repeatedly starting with the original MacOS GUI, the iMac all-in-one PC, the Apple retail store concept, iPod, the iTunes music store, the app store, the iPhone, and most recently, the iPad.

    These things were all inspired by and employ existing ideas and technologies, but achieved incredible success because of Apple’s keen awareness and abilty to focus on what really matters to a large majority of its customers.

    Some doubt if Apple still has the ability to deliver the kinds of iconic product they have in the past. I think they do as long as they retain the priorities and focus that they are know for.

  • ksegall

    Well stated. I agree 100%.

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  • Andrew F.

    Interesting too that under Steve Jobs Apple combined a lot of breakthrough engineering into an iconic design with the G4 Cube and yet it still failed. Goes to show that sometimes a great product alone isn’t enough. It needs market fit and proper pricing too. I suppose this thought belongs in Ken’s post about the perceived failure of the 5C (which is seeing a nice bounce in the UK).

    Speaking of your piece on the 5C, Ken, the media couldn’t wait to take your words and run with it. Some interesting headlines out there.

  • Andrew F.

    Meaningful innovation will forever be about quality not quantity…. Interesting words in light of reviews that the Galaxy S5’s fingerprint scanner is really unreliable, and when it does work it’s poorly implemented (you have to swipe your finger in a downward motion across the top of the home button for it to sometimes work).

    Also shows how Apple can still implement meaningful new technologies in a way that perplexes and confuses its competitors.

  • immovableobject

    Apple’s failures are often due to prioritizing style over function. The G4 Cube was a good example of this. I owned one and loved it, but it was full of ridiculous compromises. It had a monster outboard power brick that they never showed in ads. The spherical speakers were totally impractical . They rolled around the desk with the slightest touch, and required a permanently connected outboard USB amp dongle, which again was never shown in ads because the tangle of wires was hideous. The top-loading CD slot was a dust receptacle. Accessing the bottom-facing connectors was a nightmare. It had a top-mounted power touch switch that offered no practical advantage over a standard mechanical switch. They did it just because they could… and on some units it was so sensitive that there were problems with random activation. If you had a pet cat in the house, just forget about it. The list goes on.

    I’d argue that some of the gratuitous “eye candy” UI changes in OS X and iOS also fall into the category of style over function too.

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  • Gary Deezy

    What’s more innovative: producing a mix of hit-and-miss products, or doing relatively nothing at all?

    Just asking.

  • Andrew F.

    The implication is that the former is Samsung and the latter is Apple. Apple hasn’t done a new type of product since iPad, but those increments have actually enhanced the product lines. Samsung does tablets but they haven’t been very good yet, and despite the increments, some of their tablet line has actually gotten worse according to reviewers.

    Seems to me that if you can’t even get a current market segment right, then you’re really jumping ahead of yourself trying to figure out these speculative markets. And besides, if sales estimates are any judge, Samsung would be doing just as well in the wearable market had they not released anything at all.

    Producing crap products, passing it off as innovation, and then asking customers to buy them is a new form of media hucksterism. Samsung is just playing for short term optics, with no regard to people who actually get swindled by their crappy public experiments. That’s not innovation. Making their new flagship smartphone waterproof (assuming it works as intended, which you certainly cannot assume) is a true usability enhancement, even if they’re not the first to do it.

  • Gary Deezy

    The millions of users that bought and are enjoying their Galaxy S3s and S4s might disagree with some of your comments. I like my iPhone, but am a bit jealous of the giant, gorgeous screen the rest of my family has on their Samsung phones, which they seem to enjoy very much.

  • Andrew F.

    I didn’t mention their high end Galaxys. By most accounts they’re fine products. But they’re not a more innovative line of phones than iPhone. There’s nothing proprietary about screen sizes, and the things that are proprietary tend not to function very well — reviews have pointed out recently how poor they’ve done with eye-tracking and their fingerprint scanning technology.

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