The strength of Samsung‘s 2012 depends on whether you’re in the South Korean company’s product team or its legal team. Seldom does a single firm see such a mixture of fate in the same product segment: huge success – both in sales and user reaction – to the Galaxy S III and the Galaxy Note II, versus a billion-dollar judgement against Samsung at the hands of arch-rival (and key components customer) Apple. All in a year’s work for a company described as both an “arch copyist” and a capable innovator.
Samsung’s device successes are epitomized by two phones, the Galaxy S III and the Galaxy Note II. The Galaxy S III represents Samsung’s gradual refinement of its mobile strategy, a third-generation showcase of the best of the company’s own components, wrapped up with copious marketing and launching to reviewer praise and huge consumer sales. Beyond Google’s own Nexus – and perhaps even despite it – it’s the one phone which has been most associated with Android in 2012.
As for the Note II, that’s arguably the strongest argument against Samsung as a “copyist” in the mobile market. The follow-up to the well esteemed (and, initially at least, much derided) Galaxy Note of 2011, the second-gen Note II not only polished off the rough edges until, at first glance, you could mistake the “phablet” for its Galaxy S III sibling (not to mention overlook the fact it has a vast 5.5-inch display), but it continued to make a legitimate case for the use of a stylus on the move.
Originally criticized as a poorly-implemented workaround to patchy resistive touchscreens, the stylus had fallen from favor until Samsung rejuvenated it in 2011, with Wacom technology used to good result in improving accuracy and delivering features like pressure support which capacitive touchscreens so far don’t offer. However, it’s Samsung’s customized features, such as the pen-enabled S Plan journal app, which actually leverage the stylus’ presence in a meaningful way, indicating Samsung is finally catching on to the idea that it needs to not only develop new features, but explain to us why we might actually want them.
Sadly the success Samsung saw in phones is yet to be repeated in tablets, and while the Nexus 10 was praised for its high-resolution display – besting the iPad with Retina display, no less, at least in terms of sheer pixel count – the absence of Android apps to showcase slates meant it failed to make the market impact that, say, the cheap Nexus 7 did. Smart TV has also wavered, and while Samsung is arguably doing the most imaginative things with its HDTV range – motion control, voice recognition, streaming from all manner of apps and services, web-browsing, video calls, and more – consumers themselves are still to demonstrate that they actually care about those features beyond the basics of great picture quality.
It’s hard to avoid Samsung’s legal issues in 2012, the cloud over its best-selling phones. The precarious and bizarre balancing act with Apple – with the two companies arch rivals in the marketplace, but closely interwoven in the supply chain – reached a peak with the US courts awarding $1bn in damages to the Cupertino firm, something Samsung has been swift to contest. Outside of the courtroom, however, Apple continued in its attempts to extract itself from Samsung dependence, prompting questions around how long the Korean company can rely on milking its foe for processors, memory chips, displays, and other hardware.
That division isn’t going to come any time soon, however. Samsung’s Texas plant expansion got the $3.6bn go-ahead near the end of 2012, and following the upgrade is expected to still be near-monopolized pumping out A-series processors for Apple’s iOS range. OLED production is yet to deliver the flexible panels Samsung originally promised for 2012 – the company was busy enough meeting Galaxy S III buyer demand for the AMOLED screens – and the launch of the curve-friendly displays isn’t now expected until sometime in 2013.
Samsung is becoming less reactionary and more comfortable taking the lead in innovation, though despite the legal sparring, the primary victim of that maturing is not Apple but the company’s rivals in the Android ecosystem. Sony, HTC, and LG have all struggled to compete with Samsung’s rise in the sales charts, with a combination of growing brand awareness, bulging R&D investment, access to the spoils of the supply chain, and a product refresh cycle paced arguably faster than any other meaning Samsung has rapidly outpaced its platform peers. Even with billion-dollar judgements hanging over it, Samsung’s 2013 shows no sign of slowing.