When is Competitive Analysis just copying (and do consumers care?)

Aug 8, 2012

Samsung's 2010 "Relative Evaluation Report" has dunked the company into hot water, but the 132-page comparison between iPhone and Galaxy S raises new questions on device differentiation and buyer benefit. Submitted as evidence of Samsung's copyist ways by Apple's legal team in the ongoing San Jose jury trial, the document is a comprehensive and blunt critique of the original Galaxy smartphone by Samsung's own team, nitpicking its way through UI and "fun factor" in a way that leaves Cupertino with no doubts that its wares have been replicated.

Apple's own executives have previously described how the impetus behind the development of the iPhone project was a sense of dissatisfaction with their existing phones. It's not hard to imagine that frustration leading to a wholesale evaluation of the current state of play in the mobile market; Apple would no doubt refer to this as competitive analysis.

Samsung's evaluation lacks subtlety, but taken in isolation it's difficult to know if such a style of analysis was unique to Apple's phones or commonplace for the Korean firm. Apple's evidence hints at the former; we'd need to see other documents from inside Samsung's test labs, performing deep-dive assessments on phones from, say, HTC and LG, to contradict that, and Samsung is unlikely to show us those.

For end-users, though, the difference is less loaded. Talk to someone who has just signed up to a two-year agreement on a new phone, and they're more likely to be concerned with how the device they just bought performs, not where the manufacturer got its inspiration from. Unless they're significantly invested in their platform of preference - whether that be financially, emotionally, or in terms of an existing hardware/software ecosystem - users generally just want the best performance, period.

That, combined with a general lack of understanding of the nature of competitive analysis, has led to a sense of frustration among tech enthusiasts. On the face of it, one interpretation of the ongoing legal battle is that one company wants to cripple the phones and tablets of another; yes, it's undoubtedly more complex than that, and Apple has the right to protect what it has invested unique R&D in (just as we'd like to think that it recognizes a responsibility to acknowledge what technology is commonplace), but patent interpretation is leagues away from sifting through a selection of handsets in a phone store.

In short, Samsung's piecemeal dissection of what makes the iPhone special is neither blatant cribbing nor competitive best-practice: it's likely somewhere in-between. If it's lucky, the company will convince the jury - and the marketplace as a whole - that it's part of a more holistic evaluation that tracked the trends of the mobile market as a whole, rather than just one high-profile and dangerous rival. Apple is out for blood, however, and Samsung has a battle on its hands to prove that the Galaxy range is distinguished, not derivative.

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