Apple & Samsung: Who's Got Whom by the Balls?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,,, at 1/17/2012 01:08:00 PM
[NOTE: For those who don't get the title, play this AC/DC song.] There are two broad debates going on regarding the current dominance of Samsung in the consumer electronics space. First we have the perennial question about the role of industrial policy for its success. Widely lauded for being a source of South Korea's competitive advantage during its rise to "Asian tiger" status, industrial policy was subsequently derided as a mechanism for harmful corruption during the Asian financial crisis. Surely there are those who criticize the continued state favoritism shown towards chaebol and its effective stifling of the emergence of smaller, nimbler Korean startups.
Me? I say the results speak for themselves.

Second and more interesting to me at the moment is the ongoing legal battle being waged by Apple against Samsung. At the same time that the Korean firm manufactures a number of the components used in the Apple iPhone, it makes its own line of smartphones. Samsung has been very successful in this regard, overhauling Apple as the world's largest seller of such devices in Q3 2011. Samsung's explanation for this strategy is that being a parts maker and a branded seller helps achieve economies of scale which it otherwise would not have had if it did not spread development costs to other customers. On the other hand, Apple is very much in line with the modern vision of an American "knowledge economy" firm that does not concentrate on manufacturing (the gritty stuff whose value-added tends to fall over time) but on branding and design (the glamorous stuff whose value-added tends not to fall). That is, who wants to be stuck with plant, property & equipment when they eventually become obsolete--isn't it worth a lot more "up there" in your head?

In many ways it's a next-generation debate between those who see the "knowledge economy" or a broader shift towards services as a source of comparative advantage (especially Americans) and those who perceive that industrial policy is still viable in the 21st century with tweaks here and there (especially Asians). Yet to paraphrase an ad slogan from long ago, Korea no longer practices its grandfather's reverse engineering but one wherein it sets the pace in new industries ahead of its Western competitors. It has certainly done well in this regard during the 21st century with bets that have paid off:
In 2000 Samsung started making batteries for digital gadgets. Ten years later it sold more of them than any other company in the world. In 2001 it threw resources into flat-panel televisions. Within four years it was the market leader. In 2002 the firm bet heavily on “flash” memory. The technology it delivered made the iPhone and iPad a reality, and made Samsung Apple’s biggest supplier—and now its biggest hardware competitor.
Or so the Koreans would like to think. As you know, Apple has taken Samsung to court over, indeed, copying the look and feel of its products (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that):
Competitors also balk at the way that Samsung scales up quickly to supply parts to other firms as well as to price its own gadgets keenly. Supplying the rest of industry drives down Samsung’s costs yet further, with its rivals in effect financing its success. This strategy can create problems. Samsung is Apple’s most important supplier in the smartphone and tablet-computer markets. Samsung components, which include all the product’s application processors, account for 16% of the value of an iPhone. It is also Apple’s greatest competitor in those markets. Apple is now suing the socks off the company for copying the look and feel of its products. At the same time it is urgently seeking new ways to diversify its supply chain.
There may thus be limits to the symbiosis said to be going on between these firms. Apple may want to broaden its component supplier base in case Samsung tries to get back at it for legal contretemps. Meanwhile, Samsung may want to devote more attention to the software side as the hardware side of the consumer electronics equation. That is, an amount of overlap in expertise is perhaps inevitable for each to maintain competitiveness vis-a-vis each other. While the Economist views this relationship as rather unique, B-school professors Brandenburger and Nalebuff already noticed how widespread the phenomenon of "co-opetition" was back in 1997 when Steve Jobs had yet to sell a single iProduct (having just rejoined Apple). Been there, done that, saw the movie, bought the T-shirt.

Returning to the post's title, who has whom by the balls? In the short term it's to an extent mutually assured electro-destruction if either backs out in a significant way. In the long term it's probably not a question we will be asking as Apple seeks to broaden its supplier base and Samsung does what it's done many times before and moves on to other industries it deems more promising--which are not necessarily those in the consumer electronics space. Remember, Samsung was not originally a consumer electronics company. Tis but a momentary convergence of interests.

That said, the broader debate on the prospects for the "knowledge economy" which America has in large part bet its economic future on compared to those for the reworked conception of industrial policy which Asian nations have staked a claim to should be interesting to watch. Who says both cannot work--and purchase stocks of both firms to diversify one's portfolio? More importantly from a political economy perspective, which specific strategy will be most beneficial to their home nations? I've already criticized the Apple model for not doing much that is good for America, for instance.