5 Apple lessons Samsung must learn after its Note 7 disaster

Who is Samsung and why does it matter?

Apple watchers may remember when the company had to recall a product following incidents in which the battery caught fire. That was the ill-fated PowerBook 5300 series, though, in Apple’s defense, the recall was fast, voluntary and only a few hundred units had been sold.

Learning is hard

Everyone makes mistakes. Those who claim to know all the answers seldom do. Those who deny their own fallibility can never be trusted, because they don’t display trust in themselves. The main thing is to learn the lessons of the error and strive not to repeat them again.

Samsung says innovation is what caused it to take the Note 7 off the market. “In a race to surpass iPhone, Samsung seems to have packed it with so much innovation it became uncontrollable,” Park Chul-wan, former director of the Center for Advanced Batteries at the Korea Electronics Technology Institute told The New York Times. (Via Samsung PR by the sound of it). Innovation isn’t innovation if it doesn’t work well, and right now Samsung can’t even figure out what the problem was. Apple’s “boring” iPhone 7, meanwhile, is selling in huge quantities, despite the negative expectation set by some in the media.

Marketing isn’t everything

We live in a cynical age. Corporations seem to see the media as an extension of their public relations departments. Crass populists run for high office. The words we use are being twisted to new meanings. War is peace, we’re told. This is the triumph of marketing. Look deeper and you see people’s resistance to such cynicism is growing. There is a powerful force of public distrust in corporations and their big brands. It’s precisely this force Google attempted to exploit when it introduced Android, marketing it as an “open” competitor to the corporate stasis represented by Apple and its iPhone. People bought it. They still do (despite Google’s overt cynicism). Samsung bought into the marketing. It truly thought (many do) that Apple’s success is built on hype and marketing. They ignored that Apple’s true strength is consistency, incremental innovation, and customer, not media, satisfaction. Customers respond to its sincerity.

The fatal error

This is why Samsung made its fatal error. Ignoring the need to rigorously test everything about a new product it rushed it to market too fast in order to compete with Apple for media attention (not for the first time). “Look at us, look at us,” it said, “We do innovation. We were first.” But first doesn’t matter. Best is what matters. Marketing is meaningless if the people who invest in your product are disappointed. While good doesn’t appear to be triumphing over evil on planet Earth right now, good products still have some chance to shine. These are made through a combination of rigor, attention to detail, and a focus on what works, rather than on what will create the most media attention.

Competition is a mirror

Arthur C. Clarke once said: “Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” That’s true, but the alchemists who combine the pieces to make the whole aren’t doing so in order to keep up with other alchemists, but out of an almost holy zeal to extend the nature of what they are working with to its best possible limits. (“You can reach a point where you cannot use resources any better,” Ive once said. You can strive to emulate a competitor, but when you do it is they who hold the power, not you. To truly compete you need to set the goal. During the Samsung v. Apple trial I’d have been more inclined to forgive the former’s guilt if it had said it shared Apple’s respect for Dieter Rams rather than spouting PR-friendly nonsense about “rounded corners” and the invention of the wheel. Empty vessels make a noise. Through a glass darkly means you look at a reflection, not of other people, but of yourself. When it comes to product design you might be informed by competing designs, but its good to remain in control of your own direction. You don’t lead by following other people, you lead by focusing on your own path. That’s why designers matter at Apple. They are its creative soul.

“Weniger, aber besser”

Apple CDO, Jony Ive’s inspiration, Dieter Rams says “less is more”. That’s a point Samsung needs to take on board. You see, rather than pouring its resources into anti-Apple attack ads and striving to develop every single product Apple is rumored to be developing before Apple finishes development and launches something that works, Samsung must step back. If it seeks to maintain its identity as a fast follower, it must accept that more mistakes will happen and that it will become nothing more than a low-budget imitator. To truly share space at the high table, Samsung needs to look deeply inside itself. What does it know? What resources does it have? What can it change? What are its values? What can it deliver to the world that the world truly needs? What can it figure out for itself if it ignores all the journalists (including me)? What and who is Samsung? What are its strengths? Every question needs honest answers, until the point at which every answer burns. That search for the essence of identity could inform and inspire every future Samsung product. Failure to engage in this task will condemn it to more errors in future. The Galaxy Note 7 debacle means Samsung must decide if it is to be part of the problem, or part of the solution. Who are you Samsung?

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