Apple, for the first time in years, is hearing footsteps.
The maker of iPhones, iPads and iPods has never faced a challenger able to make a truly popular and profitable smartphone or tablet — not Dell, not Hewlett-Packard, not Nokia, not BlackBerry — until Samsung Electronics.
The South Korean manufacturer’s Galaxy S III smartphone is the first device to run neck and neck with Apple’s iPhone in sales. Armed with other Galaxy phones and tablets, Samsung has emerged as a potent challenger to Apple, the top consumer electronics maker. The two companies are the only ones turning profits in the highly competitive mobile phone industry, with Apple taking 72 percent of the earnings and Samsung the rest.
Yet these two rivals, who have battled in the marketplace and in the courts worldwide, could not be more different. Samsung Electronics, a major part of South Korea’s expansive Samsung Group, makes computer chips and flat-panel displays as well as a wide range of consumer products including refrigerators, washers and dryers, cameras, vacuum cleaners, PCs, printers and TVs.
Where Apple stakes its success on creating new markets and dominating them, as it did with the iPhone and iPad, Samsung invests heavily in studying existing markets and innovating inside them.
“We get most of our ideas from the market,” said Kim Hyun-suk, an executive vice president at Samsung, in a conversation about the future of mobile devices and television. “The market is a driver, so we don’t intend to drive the market in a certain direction,” he said.
That’s in stark contrast to the philosophy of Apple’s founder Steven P. Jobs, who rejected the notion of relying on market research. He memorably said that consumers don’t know what they want.
Nearly everything at Samsung, from the way it does research to its manufacturing, is unlike Apple. It taunts Apple in its cheeky advertisements while Apple stays above the fray.
And the Korean manufacturer may even be putting some pressure on Apple’s world-class designers. Before Apple released the iPhone 5, which had a larger screen than earlier models, Samsung had already been selling phones with even bigger displays, like the 5.3-inch screen Galaxy Note, a smartphone so wide that gadget blogs call it a phablet.