One of the great technology rivalries that have emerged over the last 6- 10 years has been the one between Apple and Samsung for the hearts and minds of the smartphone, smartwatch, and earbud consumers. Apple started the smartphone revolution in 2007 but Samsung, using their version of Android, joined the smartphone race shortly after and has made serious inroads into this lucrative mid to high-end field of hand-held computers. Soon after Apple introduced the Apple Watch and AirPods, Samsung doubled down on innovating around these devices too, and many now consider them an equal competitor to Apple on all of these above-mentioned products.
Each fall, Apple and Samsung hold worldwide launch parties for the newest models to take advantage of the holiday buying season. For the last three to four years or so, Samsung has made sure to announce their new premium smartphones before Apple and has used mid-August for the fall Unpacked events. If Apple conforms to past fall introductions, we should see new iPhones, Apple Watches, and AirPods debut sometime in the first two weeks of September.
The good news of this rivalry is that consumers are the big winners as each company pushes the other to greater innovation.
Earlier this week, Samsung held their big coming-out party for their new Galaxy Z Fold3 phones, Galaxy 4 watches, and Galaxy Buds 2.
As a serious Apple watcher over the last 40 years who has observed many companies trying to compete with Apple and fail, Samsung has both the technical prowess and deep pockets that most of the others did not enjoy. Indeed, Samsung is a worldwide industrial and consumer products company whose mobile division has become one of its greatest success stories and cash cows.
I have either been to, or watched all of Samsung’s Unpacked events since they debuted, and marvel each time at the innovation they continue to bring to their devices. The new Galaxy Z Fold3 and Galaxy Z Flip3 are by far the best folding phones one can buy today. The new health monitoring built into the Galaxy Watch 4, which now includes real-time BMI measurements and the ability to monitor blood pressure, brings new advances to smartwatches. The new Galaxy Buds 2, with superb audio and active noise canceling at $ 149, is $ 40 cheaper than Apple’s AirPods Pro.
One other clear thing is that Samsung has also become much better at marketing its products. Before 2017, I considered Samsung’s marketing of their devices anemic at best. However, over the last three-four years, Samsung’s marketing of their devices has become world-class. Apple still outspends Samsung by a high margin in marketing, but the quality and creativity in Samsung’s marketing campaigns for their new products have been exceptional.
As you can imagine, Apple watches what competitors do closely and, has never taken Samsung’s push for continual innovation for granted. Apple’s interest in Samsung’s stronger commitment to mobile innovation and creative marketing is a good thing. It motivates Apple to innovate as well, although, given Apple’s history of creating groundbreaking innovative products on their own, I doubt they need Samsung pushing any Apple innovation buttons.
As I watched Samsung’s Unpacked event this week, I came away with a few thoughts about Apple’s fall launch sometime in September.
1-Samsung’s major product announcements at the 2021 fall event were highly focused on foldable phones. Given the rumors flying around an Apple iPhone 13 launch next month, it seems unlikely that Apple would surprise us with a foldable phone of their own. I do not believe Apple is high on foldable form factors at all. In brief talks with Apple execs over the years about foldable devices, the question of the business case keeps coming up. This is one question that still has no real answer. We will sell close to 3 billion smartphones in 2021 and a micro-percentage of them will be folding models. For one thing, Samsung’s prices are high. The Galaxy Z Fold3 starts at $ 1799. At this price, it is what we call executive jewelry.
I tried the first model of the Galaxy Fold three years ago and wrote that this was more a work-in-progress device. Version 2 was better, and on paper, the Galaxy Z Fold3 deals with the inadequacies of models 1 and 2 and shows more promise. I hope to be able to test one of these in real-time and develop a stronger business case for foldable smartphones, besides its ability to also become a small tablet.
After the first Samsung foldable was introduced, I was part of a small task force for a Fortune 100 company that was considering using it for a large mobile field force. I advised against it then as I felt that this first model would underperform based on their needs. It remains to be seen if this third version can fit the needs of enterprise customers.
As for Apple, I have not seen or heard of any serious interest in developing a folding iPhone anytime soon. Again, the use case for these is still weak and demand is minimal at best. Apple would not even consider doing a folding smartphone unless they believed they could sell them in the 10’s of millions. Without that assurance, Apple may just sit this one out.
2- The two new advances in Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4, BMI measuring and blood pressure monitoring are really important. As Samsung pointed out in their overview of the new BMI feature, past solutions for measuring this metric need external tools. Samsung showed a clever set of sensor inventions built into the watch that they say has a 98% accuracy rate when using their new watch to take this BMI measurement. Every time I have my yearly physical I have to do a BMI test. Doing that on-demand is a big deal and if this works as stated, this is an important advancement in wearable technology.
The blood pressure feature is a huge deal too. Many people, including myself, have to take their BP daily for various health and heart issues. Having that built into the Galaxy Watch 4 is a serious differentiator and could help Samsung grow its wearable business. I would be pleasantly surprised if these two features are on the new Apple Watch coming out this fall, but I am not expecting it as of now.
3- Galaxy Buds 2, with active noise canceling at $ 149 makes these types of earbuds much more consumer-friendly. I would love to see Apple become more aggressive on their AirPods Pro pricing and Samsung’s lower pricing on their earbuds could put pressure on Apple to perhaps bring the price of their earbuds down a bit this fall.
One last observation from the Samsung Unpacked event.
As stated above, I have been to multiple Samsung Unpacked events in person, the last one being in San Francisco in mid-February 2020. Although those were also streamed, going to the event in person was more about the real-time experiences. But since then Samsung has held their last three Unpacked events exclusively online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The last in-person launch event at Apple’s Spaceship was in September of 2019. Since then Apple has streamed all of its product launches as well as two developer conferences online.
While I do miss the in-person events, I am much more inclined to want these events just streamed in real-time in the future. It is cheaper to do this for both companies compared to the cost of a live event and provides much less wear and tear on analysts, press, and friends of the company who often have to jet in from Asia, Europe, and other parts of the US for any live in-person product launches.
Neither Samsung nor Apple has made any statements about future live events, but if this last year has taught us anything, using streaming video events to launch new products accomplishes much of the same results that an in-person event does, minus the immediate hands- we experience. I can live with that.