Every snob needs an inferior. And thanks to the late Steve Jobs, no company has more deeply integrated snobbery into its brand than Apple. But it’s been years since Apple has had the one competitor it could focus on feeling superior to — which is why the news that Apple and Samsung aren’t engaged in settlement talks over their long-running intellectual property dispute can only mean good things for the Silicon Valley titan.
Some background: last week, the Korea Times reported that the two companies were in “working level discussions” to dismiss all the lawsuits between them. Unfortunately, the report appeared to be based on an incomplete reading by the paper of recent filings in Apple’s most recent suit against Samsung in U.S. federal court. The Times subsequently backed off its story, meaning Apple and Samsung remain at loggerheads.
Of the two, Apple is sure to benefit more from the battle continuing. While every company needs competitors (and not just to ward off the anti-trust investigators), Apple under Jobs always made a special effort to find an opponent for employees and customers to mock, often viciously. In the beginning there was IBM, the maker of bland vanilla boxes sold by the faceless men in dark suits, which Jobs and his advertising partner Jay Chiat skewered as Big Brother in their famous “1984” Super Bowl ad for Macintosh.
After IBM, of course, it was Microsoft, whose greatest crime in Jobs’ eyes wasn’t just that it copied the Mac operating system with Windows, but that Windows was so cheap-looking.
In both cases Apple posed as the crusading outsider, the only company who truly cared about making beautiful products (“The Computer for the Rest of Us”), with IBM and later Microsoft portrayed as the mass market purveyor of mediocrity.
But with the Windows juggernaut floundering about in the mobile space ever since the iPhone arrived in 2007, Apple has suffered through a kind of corporate schizophrenia, trying and often failing to align an uncomfortable newer persona it had assumed—that of dominant force in the smartphone and tablet markets—with its outsider’s stance of warring against entrenched power.
Fortunately the mixed trial result in Apple’s latest suit against the Samsung—which was finally wrapped up by a San Jose jury earlier this month with a $190 million award in Apple’s favor—may help cement Samsung as the new Borg of bland for Apple to define itself against.
The unsexy but massive competitor, of course, is something every premium brand needs for its marketing —whether you’re Mercedes or Sam Adams or Apple, consumers can’t truly judge the coolness and desirability of driving or drinking or touching your products unless there’s some more mundane, more mass market “other” making a ubiquitous, boring mainstream product that yours is “better” than.
In Apple’s case, as laid down by Steve Jobs, “cool” and “taste” focused on design —including, quite often, the lack of it in the competition. IBM and Microsoft, from a Jobsian perspective, were vulgarians.
Condescending to your competitors in this way works better at a distance—which may be a hidden reason why Apple has settled on Samsung rather than Google as the target for the series of patent lawsuits it has unleashed, despite the fact that (as Samsung’s lawyers have repeatedly argued) many of Apple’s specific complaints about copying are software, not hardware-based. Indeed, Apple and Google announced that they were dropping all future lawsuits against each other, at the same time Apple and Samsung were ratcheting up the rhetoric via the legal filings the Korea Times cited in its story.
Google and Apple executives send their kids to the same schools, eat at the same restaurants, attend the same baseball games. It’s hard to hold a grudge about a lawsuit—or maintain an air of condescension—toward people you see every day. And while Samsung is building its own Silicon Valley campus now, it will still be an outpost, not a home base—members of the Lee family which control Samsung won’t be showing up at Atherton garden parties or Computer Museum benefit events.
IBM, with its Armonk, N.Y., headquarters, and Microsoft in suburban Seattle were easy to skewer at a remove, even though they have each had longtime San Francisco Bay Area subsidiary locations. Samsung, separated from Apple not only by 5600 miles of Pacific Ocean but by language, is that much easier to vilify.
Especially when (as was also true of Microsoft with Word and Excel), Samsung is a frenemy building key components for the Apple ecosystem. The chips powering the iPhone 5, for example, are made in Samsung factories.
The approach to product development and marketing by Samsung’s Mobile division also makes it a better target for Apple than Google. Like Coca-Cola or Anheuser-Busch constantly introducing new variations on its core product in order to claim shelf space in the supermarket, Samsung’s approach to phones has long been the same. This is a company than can roll out as many as 40 or more different phone models in a single year; even in the more limited smartphone market there are as many as a dozen types on offer at your local Verizon or AT&T store.
Multiple product lines can lead to divided attention and eventually confusion, however. And in Samsung’s case, with so many new products in so many different shapes and sizes constantly hitting the marketplace, the company can often take a very short-term view to maintaining consistency in its marketing.
(Full disclosure: two years I got a long distance view of Samsung’s process when one of the company’s advertising agencies briefly hired me as a contractor to help develop a mobile web magazine, which at least initially would have been exclusively sponsored by Samsung. The project never got the go ahead from Samsung, and the executive there who killed it would soon depart for Google’s Motorola mobile phone division.)
Compare that to Apple, which consciously limits the number of devices it’s pushing—a selectivity which reinforces the company’s message about the relative quality of its products. Consumers queue up for its all-too-infrequent product releases, Apple’s chief designer Jonny Ive recently told Time magazine, because they’re “a demonstration against thoughtlessness and carelessness.”
Even without mentioning Samsung, it’s clear who Ive was talking about. It’s the kind of dig against the competition that suggests the company some analysts have accused of being adrift has found the enemy it needs to succeed.