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Leading the pack or always playing follow the leader?
Author: Jeremy Herring
February 1st 2013 -

One thing we learned from the Apple-Samsung trademark ruling is that there is virtually no economic ceiling when it comes to defending one’s turf in the mobile device market. In spite of a monetary penalty north of a billion dollars, the real gut-punch to Samsung was the pummeling of its stock price which makes the ruling seem like a truly paltry sum. This is the real blow that Apple landed against its chief hardware rival. However, is the financial setback really the stumbling block that Apple anticipates it to be?

Consider how this all started. It was ruled that Samsung willfully copied Apple’s designs for the iPhone, both in visual construction and user interface cues. This all occurred more than two years ago because the success of the iPhone left every other manufacturer scrambling to come up with a competitive product. Samsung simply cloned a Goliath to take on the Goliath. Even knowing that they would face possible legal repercussions, it was the shortest distance from obscurity to market dominance and regardless of the ethics the strategy worked.

Apple’s real concern should be not what took place back then but what’s taking place now. Now in its fifth iteration, the iPhone is iconic and for the most part unchanged since the first generation, features notwithstanding. The fact that none of Samsung’s current models look the least bit like the iPhone should actually have Apple worried. It’s a sign that Apple is being overtaken by the rest of the pack.

Resting on one’s laurels is the surest way to end up at the back of the pack. It’s essentially the business equivalent of the tortoise and the hare. When an innovator is being imitated, it’s because they have so defined or redefined their market that the competition is teetering on irrelevance. The only way they can continue to compete is to copy the innovator’s approach, be it design, function, implementation, marketing strategy or target audience. With varying degrees of success, the followers manage to maintain their market share and may even capture a little more than before if they learn how to imitate the leader a little more efficiently. But when one of the followers surpasses the performance of the leader, they BECOME the leader. No longer is it necessary to follow the lead of those who are no longer leading. This is where Apple finds itself in relationship to Samsung.

Samsung has well-established itself as THE Android device manufacturer regardless of the financial setback of the recent ruling. However, the fact that Samsung is no longer striving to duplicate Apple’s approach and is still eclipsing Apple in sales volume by number of units sold illustrates that the cloning phase was simply a stepping stone to market dominance and now Samsung intends to enjoy the benefit of setting the pace as the leader of the pack. That’s certainly not to suggest that Apple might turn the tables and copy Samsung – that’s not their style. At the end of the day however this is all about revenue and the opportunity to increase revenue potential is directly related to one’s market share. Apple is going to have to redouble its efforts to find that next redefining innovation that can catapult it back into the lead.

Apple’s UI still outclasses the highly fragmented Android UI with its carrier-customized overlays which not only make the user experience highly variable but also adds a layer of unnecessary code which often compromises the core OS and makes it less reliable than its IOS rival. The differences are minimal though and often consumers are buying the device also and not the user interface alone. The two are a package deal and sometimes CPU speed or memory trumps a flawless OS. This is where Google’s involvement should make Apple shiver because the version 4.1 Jelly Bean boasts an OS experience that rivals or in some cases surpasses IOS. The customization options alone make any Android product a more attractive prospect for a techie than an Apple product any day.

Apple also has a tendency to manipulate its consumer base by majoring on minors. While the first iPhone was a game-changer, each subsequent generation of iPhone is not a technological advance but rather a relative shuffling forward of innovation. Where the first iPhone broke the mold and revolutionized an industry, each successor has only carried the mantle a little ways. Even now, the highly-anticipated NFC functionality is still not in the new iPhone 5 despite it being an expectation ever since the iPhone 3. How does Apple get away with this kind of consumer disappointment generation after generation? They don’t acquiesce to consumer expectations. Instead, they build the product they set out to build and the loyalists who drink the Apple juice will buy it in spite of its perceived shortcomings. There’s a lot of soundness in such an approach but it cannot continue indefinitely. Eventually consumers will hold the brand accountable for its hardness of hearing the consumer expectation.

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