Apple v. Samsung: Who Has the Better Smartphone Strategy?

To be quite frank, when I set out on this journey to dissect and analyze the different smartphone strategies for Apple and Samsung, I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into or how I was going to feel by the end of it all. And here we are, a few days of research and reflection later and I don’t think much has changed—but I still want to get my thoughts down on paper to see if I’m making any sense. (Your feedback is appreciated.) Nevertheless, here we go.

Inherently, whenever there’s a discussion about the state of the smartphone industry and the hardware that consumers carry around in their pockets and purses, the discussion will always dovetail into a comparison between Apple and Samsung. They’re, arguably, the two biggest and most-well-known names in the smartphone game—in the U.S. anyway. Huawei, of course, has a case to make as the second largest smartphone maker by shipment volume over the last year, one spot ahead of Apple, trailing only Samsung. But at the end of the day it’s an Apple and Samsung discussion.

It could have something to do with the years of litigation between the two companies, which only came to an end last summer. It certainly has a lot to do with the OS Wars between iOS and Android—Apple’s iPhone is the only iOS device on the market while Samsung is the largest manufacturer of Android-powered devices. Whatever the reason, you can’t talk about one without mentioning the other in the same breath.

But when it comes to their to-market strategies, does either company have a clear advantage? Is one doing it better than the other? Is this even a discussion worth having?

I prefer to start by tackling that last question, which might seem a bit rhetorical, but is certainly valid. Reason for that being Apple and Samsung have totally different smartphone strategies. True, they compete at certain levels and are two of the most dominant players in the game. But the sheer volume of phones each manufacturers is worlds apart. Let’s look their 2019 launch strategies in a vacuum. A recent tweet from CNET, which is actually what prompted this article, lists nine different Samsung Galaxy devices, all of which have been announced since March.

Samsung is actively selling a budget A50 phone, four different S10 models (the S10, S10E, S10 Plus, and S10 5G), three different Note10 devices (the Note10, Note10 Plus, and Note10 Plus 5G), and their innovative albeit maligned Galaxy Fold. The CNET tweet was in reference to a report they put together to help consumers tell all of those different phones apart from one another. The kicker to all of this? These are all just the phones that are part of Samsung’s flagship Galaxy lineup of smartphones. The Korean tech firm offers dozens upon dozens of other smartphones and feature phones at much more consumer-friendly price points.

Moving over to Apple, the Cupertino-based manufacturer is expected to announce three new iPhones in early September, all of which should be made available by the end of the month. That’s it—three devices in its flagship lineup. As has been the case in years past, Apple will likely continue offering past year’s models at discounted prices, but their annual lineup of device launches hasn’t ever extended past what you could count to on a single hand. Yet, here they stand as the third largest manufacturer of smartphones by shipment volume (or second, depending on which quarter you look at), even as the smartphone market continues to experience a major regression.

Collectively, Apple and Samsung have dominated the smartphone market globally. Their combined market share of total active devices only just dipped below 50 percent for the first time at the end of 2018—as more Chinese budget smartphone makers crop up. In that regard, Samsung holds a slight edge at just over 26 percent compared to just under 24 percent for Apple.

If we take a look at the companies from a pure numbers perspective, the advantage certainly goes to Samsung. According to Q1 2019 smartphone shipment data from IDC, Apple was the only top-five smartphone maker to experience a decline quarter-over-quarter and year-over-year. Samsung took 23 percent of the market share for global shipments during the quarter compared to Apple’s 11.8 percent.

IDC q1 2019 smartphone shipments worldwide apple samsung smartphone strategy

Diving deeper, though, the smartphone strategies for Apple and Samsung speak more to the respective companies and their overall product strategies. Each has realized their own success by staying true to who they are as product makers. Samsung, for one, tries to do everything really well for consumers. They dabble in all sorts of consumer tech markets, from TVs, to smartphones, to appliances, to personal audio, and so on. Apple on the other hand, is well known for being a company that would rather perfect a product instead of launching something in order to be the first to do so. Design and execution comes first, while they’re less concerned about affordability, because it’s their belief that consumers will pay a premium for a product that provides an exceptional experience. Apple’s product portfolio is much more condensed than a Samsung, for example. But it’s, arguably, a much more polished product portfolio.

Each offers their core customer exactly what they want. Faithful iPhone users crave the seamless, perhaps boring experience that iOS provides. But that experience is driven by premium, top-class hardware—even in their “budget conscious” models. While Samsung does match Apple in offering those flagship, premium models, they also choose to go after the lower end of the smartphone market with entry-level, super budget phones that realize a great deal success across the wider global spectrum.

Another way of looking at this might be to say that what Apple cares about is providing a user experience that’s company focused, even if that means turning off a certain kind of consumer. Samsung, on the other hand, wants to get their phones in the hands of as many consumers as possible, in as many different form factors as possible, allowing the consumer to choose the experience that’s right for them. Each approach has it’s ups and downs. And each approach, for what it’s worth, has resulted in tremendous global success for both companies.

So, again, circling back to the main question here—does Apple or Samsung have the better smartphone strategy—I think they’re each doing right by their customers. And when you boil it down, isn’t that what’s really most important here?

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