25 Oct 2015

Why Samsung is More Important Than Apple

(Disclosure: I work for Google, but these are my personal thoughts.)

Jean-Louis Gassée wrote a memorial to Steve Jobs, reminding us of some of his successes and the high points in his career. It was titled, Who’s going to protect us from cheap and mediocre now? While “cheap” can mean low-quality, and I’ve often heard Americans use the word that way, it can also mean low-priced. And that interpretation is hard to ignore. Apple, after all, inhabits the high end of the price spectrum for any product, whether phones or laptops.

I think inhabiting the low end of the price spectrum lets a company have a greater effect on the world, for two reasons: First, there are many more people at the low end of any market. Second, you can change their life more profoundly. Hundreds of millions of people are coming online in India and other emerging markets using smartphones priced at less than ₹10K. Imagine the change to a person’s life when they come online for the first time. Whereas someone who buys a ₹62K iPhone most likely already has a smartphone and a laptop. Giving them a marginally better phone isn’t going to change their lives much. There isn’t that much difference between low- and high-end products. A ₹6K Android One phone does most of what the iPhone can do [1]. The difference between not being online and having an Android One phone is an order of magnitude bigger than the difference between an Android One phone and an iPhone.

This goes for other things as well — if someone who doesn’t have an AC or a fridge or a car buys one for the first time, their life is going to change significantly. Buying a better car or better AC is going to lead to a marginal improvement in their life.

So, not only are there more people at the low end of any market, but more importantly, each of their lives will be changed more than a high-end buyer’s.

You can optimise for the number of people whose lives you touch, and how deeply you touch them, or you can optimise for profit. Apple has done the latter, and has enjoyed unparalleled success there [2]. It is the world’s biggest company by market cap. Their market cap is more than that of the next two biggest tech companies put together (Microsoft and Google respectively). Or the next two biggest companies across all industries (Microsoft and Exxon Mobil). So, I have enormous respect for them for being so successful at what they’ve chosen to do, which is to maximise profit.

But that’s a different goal from optimising for how many people you touch and how deeply you change their lives. You can’t optimise for both goals. And Apple chose profit. That’s the right choice to you if you’re investor in Apple. But for everyone else, what matters is the company’s impact on society. Touching the most people, and changing their lives by bringing them online, is a far more grand vision than making a marginally better product for a rich person who already has one. By this measure, Android is more important to the world than iOS, and Samsung more important than Apple [3].

[1] Most markets have a sweet spot, where you get the most bang for the buck. Go higher, and you get a slightly better product for a much higher price. Go lower, and you get a product that won’t work well.

For example, if you’re buying a camera, the sweet spot is around $500. You can buy a camera five times more expensive, and it won’t be five times as good by any measure.

So, most markets have a sweet spot where you get the most bang for the buck. I don’t think markets in India go beyond that point. As opposed to developed countries, where you see such oddities as $300 frying pans.

[2] I think Apple has optimised iPhone pricing to generate the maximum profit for the company in aggregate. Total profit is the product of per-device profit and the number of devices. If they were to double the price of the iPhone, for example, they’d make a lot more profit per phone, but maybe they’d sell so few of them that their total profit goes down. On the other hand, if Apple were to halve the price of the iPhone, they’d sell more, but perhaps not enough to offset the decreased per-device profit. So, Apple seems to have successfully optimised the total profit they generate.

[3] Apple did develop much of the technology and UX and product design used in modern smartphones, but their benefit to the poor is indirect, whereas Micromax, say, benefits them directly.

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