Posted by David Price 01 February 2015
Good news for Apple, bad news for Samsung (and the rest of us)
One day the predictions will come true and Apple will get knocked off its perch; sic transit gloria cupertini. But that day has yet to come, as we discovered at the company's earnings call last week. There is only one thing we say to Death: 'Not this fiscal quarter'.
In fact, Apple did a great deal more than put off the Grim Reaper for a few more years, which is what you might have expected from those predictions I mentioned just now: some of the analyst comment before the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus came out verged on the apocalyptic. The firm's Q1 2015 was the most lucrative quarter of any public company in American history and arrived, with brutal timing, just days before erstwhile rival Samsung was obliged to trot out its own (less than triumphant) numbers. The great handset war of the first half of the 2010s may be drawing to a close. If the fat lady isn't singing quite yet, she's definitely doing her gargling exercises.
Yet I for one hope that the present dip in the fortunes of Samsung's mobile business is not terminal. (It does at least have numerous other subsidiary businesses to lean on, from insurance to theme parks, although some would argue that the Korean giant's sprawling jack-of-all-trades approach is one of the reasons why it's losing to laser-focused Apple.) Competition is good for everyone, and in hardware terms Samsung has been Cupertino's most credible rival for years. An unchallenged Apple is a far less appealing prospect.
Google and Amazon are Apple's real rivals, of course, and in broad terms the second half of this decade will be all about those three companies fighting it out for tech-market dominance. But each one currently concentrates on a different segment: Google rules data gathering and free software services, Amazon is the king of content and distribution, and Apple does the best and most popular hardware. The sad fact is that, if Samsung were removed as a credible threat, none of these companies would be truly tested in their own realm.
Granted, outside the specialisms listed above there are areas of overlap. Google continues to assault Apple's homelands through proxy hardware makers. Apple and Amazon are both phenomenal shifters of digital content, and while they presently slide past one another somewhat (music, video content and - most lucratively of all - apps are Apple's cash cows, while Amazon is unrivalled in the field of digital books) these areas are likely to blur.
And from time to time the big three make more overt land grabs on one another's territories - but they are usually repelled. Google makes a smartphone; Amazon makes a tablet; Apple makes a mapping service; things generally proceed much as before. Each giant seems too strong to be defeated on its own turf, reminding me a little of the politically convenient perpetual war between the three superstates in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Nobody would argue that tech consumers face a future quite as dystopian as that, but a world of semi-competing but largely separate monopolies is a dispiriting thought. As an Apple fan, I like the fact that Samsung gave the company a run for its money in the premium smartphone space: it forced it to innovate, to sharpen up its software, to show up the bad ideas and copy the good ones. It made the iPhone what it is today.
For an idea of what Apple is like when it sits in splendid isolation, take a look at the unchallenged first-party apps on iOS - the ones you're obliged to keep as the default even when better alternatives exist. Calendar is a pale shadow of Fantastical. iBooks is weaker than the Kindle app. Newsstand and Stocks simply aren't very useful for most people. Imagine if all these apps had to fight for their place on your iPhone. Imagine how brilliant they could be.
So I hope that Samsung lives to fight again, and that Apple has to keep releasing amazing smartphones to stay competitive. Then again, the mechanisms of free-market capitalism are usually pretty reliable at filling competition vacuums, and perhaps we just need to wait for the next Asian success story to take Samsung's place. How about it, Xiaomi?
Read more: Apple puts the big hurt on Samsung