What a difference three months can make. At the end of August, Apple Inc seemed on top of the world. Fresh off a resounding US$1.05 billion US legal victory over arch-rival Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, the company was gearing up to launch the fifth iteration of its iconic iPhone. Just a week prior, its market value had surpassed Microsoft Corp’s and it became the most valuable technology company in history.
That was then. Since winning a landmark US patent infringement case in August, its stock has dived 18 percent, wiping US$108 billion from its value. However, the shares of defeated party Samsung have surged, rising 16 percent.
The dramatic reversal has sparked raging market speculation. Some pundits say concerns are growing about the seemingly inexorable advance of Google Inc’s Android, the rival software championed by Samsung. Others say fears about higher capital gains taxes have prompted investors made rich by Apple’s stock-price growth to sell.
However, it is the Apple-Samsung rivalry that defines a global mobile device industry with a growing list of struggling players. Together, the two mobile juggernauts account for more than 1 in 2 smartphones sold globally.
Analysts say Samsung is beginning to shed its aura as a “fast follower” and becoming a serious innovator, while Apple has failed to deliver on a truly seminal product in years — the oft-rumored Apple TV remains a well-honed rumor.
“Apple’s actions have started to appear as if innovation is slowing and they’re defending turf with a zero-sum market view rather than continuing to innovate as a world-beating leader,” said Tony Nash, managing director at IHS, a business information provider.
The clash of the gadget titans underscores a broader battle between Apple and Google’s increasingly popular Android mobile software, now installed on about two out of every three smartphones sold.
However, some Asian analysts also point to Samsung’s very different business model as helping it get a leg up on Apple.
The iPad maker’s outsourcing structure provides fatter margins, but cedes some control to an army of suppliers, while Samsung’s competitiveness is driven by keeping most of its manufacturing in-house.
And while Apple focuses on a few high-end mobile devices, Samsung’s product breadth helps it scoop up new, less affluent users who can then be driven toward higher-margin devices, such as the phone-tablet combo the Galaxy Note.
“In Asia, Samsung is still in the stronger growth position when it comes to smartphones — bringing large-screen models to the masses, reintroducing the pen with its Galaxy Note series and also, at the lower end, with its entry-level Galaxy Y devices driving emerging markets like Indonesia and India,” said Melissa Chau, Singapore-based research manager at IDC.
No one is writing off Apple, still the world’s most valuable listed company and expected to chalk up 27 percent revenue growth to almost US$200 billion in fiscal year 2013 — about level with Samsung.
“There have certainly been missteps at Apple ... but if we look at what’s been achieved in the year since [co-founder Steve] Job’s death, there are things that keep their competitors quaking in their boots,” said Rachel Lashford, managing director, mobile and APAC, at consultancy Canalys in Singapore.
However, the South Korean company is now beginning to generate some buzz with recent improvements in its lineup.
“Samsung’s richer product lineup and vertically integrated supply structure are among its strongest advantages over Apple’s simpler product range and strength in software,” said Kim Young-chan, an analyst at Shinhan Investment Corp in Seoul.