The ge­nius of Sam­sung

Farhad Man­joo iden­ti­fies the amaz­ing success of the Korean gi­ant.

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Con­sider the ‘‘ph­ablet’’. Back in 2011, when Sam­sung first un­veiled the Galaxy Note – a 5.3-inch smart­phone that was big enough to be a minitablet, hence the ugly port­man­teau of phone and tablet – the world’s tech pun­dits couldn’t sti­fle their gig­gles. Was it a phone? Was it a tablet? Was it a joke?

Smart­phone in­dus­try blog Boy Ge­nius Report called the Note ‘‘the most use­less phone I’ve ever used’’, adding: ‘‘You will look stupid talk­ing on it, peo­ple will laugh at you and you’ll be un­happy if you buy it.’’

Giz­modo ar­gued that the Note ‘‘isn’t just de­signed poorly – it’s hardly even de­signed for hu­mans.’’ I couldn’t re­sist join­ing the cho­rus. The firm was, I wrote, hop­ing that ‘‘when you whip a phone as big as the Galaxy Note out of your pants, some dudes will think you’re a god.’’

But the joke’s on me and my wise-guy tech journo col­leagues. Con­found­ing our pre­dic­tions, Sam­sung sold 10 mil­lion Notes in 2012, mak­ing it one of the most suc­cess­ful smart­phone launches in his­tory.

Then, a few months ago, Sam­sung launched the Galaxy Note II, an up­graded ver­sion with an even larger screen – and it promptly sold 5 mil­lion of them, and is on track to sell 20 mil­lion over the course of the year.

The Note’s success has spawned a spate of copy­cats, with ph­ablets be­com­ing the hottest new smart­phone cat­e­gory. Over at qz.com, Christo­pher Mims ar­gues that the ph­ablet is be­com­ing the com­put­ing de­vice of choice in the de­vel­op­ing world. ‘‘If your bud­get is lim­ited, why deal with two dif­fer­ent up­grade cy­cles and two dif­fer­ent de­vices, when you can put all of your money into a sin­gle de­vice?’’ he ar­gues. Mims be­lieves that the Note’s success may even force Ap­ple to build a ri­val ph­ablet.

I’m not so sure. Sam­sung is hav­ing a moment, and ev­ery one of its ri­vals vis­ited its enor­mous booth at the Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show a few weeks ago to keep an eye on the Korean tech jug­ger­naut. Re­cently, Techcrunch’s MG Siegler crowned Sam­sung the ‘‘fifth horse­man’’ – the only wor­thy ri­val to Ap­ple, Ama­zon, Face­book and Google, the four­some that dom­i­nates the world’s tech mar­kets. Note that Mi­crosoft doesn’t make the list any more.

Sam­sung earns that spot in part be­cause of its fear­some stats: It is the world’s largest tech com­pany by rev­enue, and in 2012 it be­came the world’s lead­ing smart­phone maker. Ac­cord­ing to the mar­ket re­search firm Canalys, Sam­sung’s smart­phone mar­ket share in the third quar­ter last year beat that of Ap­ple, Sony, HTC and Re­search in Mo­tion com­bined. It still lags be­hind Ap­ple in profit – Ap­ple sells fewer iPhones but earns more money do­ing so – but Sam­sung’s smart­phone pro­ceeds have dou­bled in the past year, so it may well one day catch its ri­val.

But there’s some­thing else be­sides sheer size that makes Sam­sung so suc­cess­ful, a bril­liance ex­em­pli­fied by the way the com­pany stum­bled into success with the Galaxy Note: Sam­sung is will­ing to try any­thing.

Ac­tu­ally, it’s will­ing to try ev­ery­thing. By build­ing dozens of models across a range of prod­uct cat­e­gories – it makes ev­ery­thing from phones to tablets to re­frig­er­a­tors to wash­ing machines – Sam­sung of­fers a de­vice for ev­ery con­ceiv­able mar­ket niche.

This flood-the-mar­ket strat­egy isn’t ele­gant. It can be con­fus­ing for cus­tomers, a pain for Sam­sung’s part­ners, and very dif­fi­cult for the firm’s engi­neers and de­sign­ers to keep up with. It also doesn’t have his­tory on its side. Other firms that have tried the build-ev­ery­thing ap­proach – see Ap­ple in the early 1990s, or Hewlett-Packard over the last decade – even­tu­ally be­gin to lum­ber un­der their own com­plex­ity.

Sam­sung’s cur­rent dom­i­nance stems from its wise re­sponse to the iPhone. When Ap­ple’s smart­phone be­gan to shoot up the sales charts in 2007, Nokia and RIM, then the world’s big­gest smart­phone com­pa­nies, more or less ig­nored it. Sam­sung saw the iPhone as an op­por­tu­nity – it showed what con­sumers wanted, so why shouldn’t Sam­sung give it to them, too? Some of the firm’s early touch­screen phones were slav­ish copies of the iPhone but Sam­sung’s de­vices worked well, and they were priced right.

There is some­thing charm­ingly hum­ble about Sam­sung’s see-what-sticks strat­egy. Other tech giants op­er­ate ac­cord­ing to lofty philoso­phies. Ap­ple prizes aes­thet­ics and us­abil­ity, Google cher­ishes the free flow of in­for­ma­tion, and Face­book wants to con­nect us all to one an­other. Sam­sung has no such phi­los­o­phy. All it wants to do is make stuff that we’ll buy. This strat­egy is an ad­mis­sion that cus­tomers, not com­pa­nies, know best.

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