Goldstuck on Gadgets

Why Samsung is no longer Cinderella at the iPhone ball

May 10th, 2016
Apple has reported a record sales slump, while Samsung’s latest phones win market approval. How did it come to this? ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK tells the tale.
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What’s wrong with this picture? Global smartphone sales down 3%, Samsung sales down 4%, Apple iPhone sales down 16%.

Or this one? Samsung revenue up 6% and profit up 12%, Apple revenue down 13% and profit down 23%.

For one thing, Samsung is tracking global trends in smartphone shipments, which is hardly wonderful news for a brand that wants to run ahead of the market. But, for another thing, Apple has lost the magic sauce.

One could be sympathetic and believe CEO Tim Cook when he blames a tough “macroeconomic environment”. But, during the worst financial slump in living memory, the big bad Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2009, Apple not only held its own; it kept growing, quarter after quarter.

The iPhone had been launched in 2007, and kept getting better, allowing the company to outperform not only the market, but also all forecasts. It kept breaking through every barrier, eventually helping Apple rack up 13 years of continual growth that had begun with the launch of the first iPod.  That is 51 quarters, of which around 8 had seen the destruction of entire national economies across the globe.

Tough macroeconomic environment? Apple used to trample on tough macroeconomic environments. Rather, try tough competitive environment. In the growing Chinese market, iPhone sales slumped 26%. Meanwhile, Chinese brands like Huawei, Oppo, and Xiaomi hungrily took global markets from their respective positions as the world’s 3rd , 4th and 5th biggest smartphone brands.

Which brings us to the Samsung Galaxy S7. It marks four out of the last five Samsung devices flagship phones that have no longer been part of the catch-up game with Apple. Back in 2012, The S3 was the best that Android could offer at the time, but also for the first time showed that someone else also gets what a smartphone should be. Still, it was considered a Cinderella, a poor copy of the finery invented by Apple for the iPhone ball.

Apple stuck doggedly to its finery: a form factor premised on a mantra that the world was satisfied with a 4” display. At 4.8”, the S3 was already pulling away. However, the iPhone 4S, still enjoying the Steve Jobs halo effect, easily kept up.

In 2013, the Samsung Galaxy S4 truly disrupted the ball, offering a phone as close to perfect as the technology of the time allowed. It overreached with some features, like gesture control.  But compared to its peer, the iPhone 5, it was a breath of fresh air, with a 5” display, 50% more power than the iPhone, and a camera that for the first time gave Apple a run for its money.

It gave Samsung undisputed leadership of the smartphone market. Along with the Note series, which introduced the phablet format and proved a voracious market appetite for even bigger displays, the S4 would prove to be a wake-up call at Apple’s Cupertino HQ.

However, Apple pushed the snooze button a couple of times. Instead of coming to the party with a larger iPhone, it delivered the 5S and a youth-oriented 5C, with the same 4” display, but in multiple colours. Crucially, it fell short of market expectations that it would be a phone targeting lower-income users and emerging markets.

Luckily for Apple, the 2014 contestant from Samsung, the S5, was a rare miss-step, offering almost no good reason for anyone to move on from the previous edition. In effect, Samsung did an Apple, offering only incremental improvements.

Both brands then upped their game phenomenally, with Apple’s alarm finally penetrating its snooze late in 2014, and a wide-awake look in the mirror resulting in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus – respectively 4.7” and 5.5” phones, targeting both the regular Samsung flagships and the Note phablet. Apple reported record sales.

Then, in 2015, came the Samsung Galaxy S6, with its beautiful curved screen Edge as well as a flat-screen option, and an absurdly good camera on both. Apple responded in time-honoured fashion later in the year, with a 6S and 6S Plus, delivering – surprise, surprise – only incremental improvements.

At he beginning of 2016 it followed with the cunning trick of cramming iPhone 6-like power into an iPhone 5-type body with 4” display and calling it the SE. Because, you know, the world is still hungry for 4” displays.

In contrast, the new Samsung S7 Edge pushes the curved device’s display from 5.1” to 5.5”, while the regular S7 keeps to 5.1”. Both have less powerful cameras but more powerful processors and more RAM, along with substantially bigger batteries. The larger phone increases battery life by up to 50% over its predecessor.

Samsung added one other feature that probably made the biggest contribution to its sales holding pattern: it dropped the recommended price by more than 20%.

In a market where the latest features are often not enough to persuade someone to upgrade, and where a good phone remains a good phone for several years, the ever-rising pricetags on flagship phones from the leading brands was bound to result in a backlash. That was probably the main reason the S6 and S6 Edge were sales disappointments, despite arguably being the best smartphones in the world.

Which brings up one of the less publicised numbers from the latest Apple results: gross profit margin, which is the real secret sauce of Apple’s astounding profits and its unprecedented $233-billion cash pile.

Gross profit margin for the last quarter was an eye-wateringly joyful 39.4%. However, that was down 40.8% for the same period the year before and from it being routinely above 40% in years before. Apple has offered guidance for the next quarter that it will fall yet again.

In the “macroeconomic environment” of increasingly thrifty customers, ferocious competitors and Samsung’s cutting edge devices, don’t expect it to begin rising again any time soon.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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