Thoughts on Samsung’s Galaxy S and Innovation

In response to iPhone phenomenal success in its South Korean home market, Samsung introduced Galaxy S, an Android-based smart phone. I have not seen it. So, I cannot comment on how good or bad it is. But, based on many reviews that came out, one thing is clear. It is not going to be an iPhone killer.

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(picture borrowed from Engadget)

If you want to kill an innovative product like iPhone that has redefined what a mobile phone is, you need something very different from iPhone, not something that is somewhat different and possibly a bit better in some areas. We often talk about differences in degree vs. differences in kind. What Samsung needs is a mobile phone that is different from iPhone, not in degree, but in kind.

But the dilemma that Samsung has is that Samsung is extremely good at producing something that is different in degree, but not very good at creating something that is different in kind. Over more than a decade, Samsung competed with Sony — trying to make what Sony makes a bit better, a bit cheaper, with some additional features. Samsung has developed its capability of being a very aggressive, fast, and competent second mover. It is able to copy its competitor’s products and make them better, packing them with more features. Its products can be better, cheaper, smaller, thinner, bigger, larger … or whatever it can possibly do with them … than its competition.

When Samsung finally caught up Sony in 2004 in revenue and profit, it finally had a chance to define itself without invoking the image of someone else. Samsung’s operating profit of $3.4 billion in 2009 was twice as big as the combined operating profits of nine biggest Japanese electronic manufacturers during the same period. Yet, between 2004 – 2010, Samsung looked hesitant, timid and reluctant in making its own bold statement through its products. I don’t have data to suggest what was Samsung’s internal innovation strategy during that time. However, what is becoming increasingly clear is that Samsung needs yet to develop its own capability for innovation in kind. Samsung’s challenge is that the capability for innovation in kind is quite different from the capability for innovation in degree.

So, what does it have to do with Galaxy S? Well, it seemed to me that once Samsung passed Sony, it seemed not sure what to do, as it never developed the necessary capability to excel in that position. However, once Apple showed up in its radar, Samsung seems to be running with its full throttle open. Samsung finds itself in a familiar place — chasing an innovative rival that creates innovation in kind. This allows Samsung does what it does best — innovation in degree. Apple is now new Sony to Samsung.

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