Samsung's basis of competition

Samsung has been selling smartphones for a relatively short time. Although the company sold Windows Mobile, Linux and PalmOS during the last decade, it did not gain significant volumes until it began selling Android phones in 2010 with strong operator support.

That support was substantial in the US. The company crashed the Android party in mid 2010 with its Galaxy brand. Trial evidence reveals that the sales level for Galaxy S1 series phones burst out of the gate taking Samsung from 90k units to 2.5 million units in one quarter.

The following graph shows the unit shipments recorded by Samsung for a set of US smartphones.

Note that the profile of sales volume shows a cyclicality with respect to product launches. Each new generation overlaps with previous generations and “fills in” while the older generation product tails off in sales. This is standard portfolio strategy. It also shows the cycle time of launches is approximately four quarters. As the S1 was four quarters old, the SII launched and the SIII follows after four quarters of SII.

What is surprising is that the overall sales volume is not growing. At least for the products catalogued (which exclude the Note) growth for the last four quarters has been: 5%, 34%, 31%, -53%. These are in stark contrast to the iPhone pattern shown in the outline bars behind Samsung’s.

The iPhone ramped slowly in 2007 and 2008 and has been showing remarkable generational growth.

Perhaps it’s still early and Samsung SIII product will ramp up as the contemporary iPhones do, but if it doesn’t we have entertain the possibility that the iPhone does not compete along the same basis.

What does it mean to compete on a different basis?

The basis of competition is the aspect of an offering for which a customer is willing to pay a premium price. It’s hard to know (or to put your finger on) what the basis actually is, but we can test whether it’s the same by measuring whether two products capture prices the same way. If one product that seems to resemble another can obtain price advantage consistently, then perhaps it’s being bought for a different reason.

To test this, I produced the following chart showing the prices that Samsung’s phones have been able to capture through their lifetimes; and the same for the iPhone.


I’ve narrowed the analysis to the first four quarters and summarized the price erosion across all the products as well:


[Note: iPhone 4S, Skyrocket, T-Mobile Galaxy SII showing only three quarters]

As mentioned, it’s still early perhaps, but the pattern for the iPhone has been different.

Samsung’s pattern is not unusual. I’ve seen similar pattern for almost all Nokia products. Prices drop. It’s a standard industry phenomenon.

Therefore the question is not perhaps what is Samsung’s basis of competition: it’s the same as the overall phone industry. The question is what is the basis of competition for the iPhone.

  • gprovida

    A lot of analysis has been based on estimates of SAMSUNG sales. Given your “surprise” how does the analysts estimates play against real data?

  • RobDK

    Samsung have here released data for the US market as evidence in the Apple/Samsung trial in California. It can be expected that Samsung have set the figure low since it is the sales of these first Galaxy models that are the basis for the patent and design infringements that this case rests on. It will therefore these numbers that will be used to calculate the fine on the basis of ‘number sold x value of infringement’.

    Since Samsung have been very hesitant in releasing sales data for their smartphones, it would be interesting to get these numbers analysed in relation to previous data/estimates.

    • dgrayson98

      So you’re saying Samsung submitted false evidence in a US court of law? No way.

      • Ittiam

        Agree… The potential damage claim is really very small, considering overall Samsung, to fudge data… Samsung stock did not show any impact from the law suite

      • JohnDoey

        $2.5 billion is never small, and the jury can award triple that if they feel Samsung was willful, not accidental.

      • Samsung’s CEO has had to be pardoned by the President of South Korea twice for bribery. The risk of losing face is more than the risk of being shown to be dishonest. If you are not lying then you are not trying hard enough is the attitude that seems to apply here. Are you at all familiar with Samsung’s corporate culture? Remember, this is the company that continued to delete all emails after 2 weeks even after being told not to by a judge. Why would the culture of the company require all emails to be deleted? The answer is that if the emails showed that the boss was lying the loss of face would be culturally equivalent to death.

        It is possible that these numbers are correct, but it is not likely.

    • Tatil_S

      It is easier to fudge the numbers if the court asks for profits on those sales, but it is much harder to lie about unit sales. The cost of getting caught would be enormous.

      • twilightmoon

        You can bet that Apple is working overtime to disprove these numbers. I’m very willing to bet they are a lie, but it might be hard for Apple to prove it given the time frame.

      • Tatil_S

        All these phones are imported. Did Samsung lie to the US customs, too?

      • Shipping here and not selling does not count in this data. It would be reasonably easy to push sales from some of your larger clients to the next quarter in order to avoid possible penalties in trial.

    • I would sooner bet the estimates for past Samsung shipments (they have not reported real numbers for some time) are greatly exaggerated.

  • Vitaly Kondratov

    Do I understand correctly that the iPhone line on last chart is a combination of all the iPhone generations? I think the Samsung Galaxy line should be given the same treatment – i.e. one line spanning 8 months spiking up after 4 quarters with the release of Galaxy II.

    • See grey line with circled data points

      • andy

        Horace, as always, great analysis. The average-galaxy ASP erosion is confusing. New gen galaxy adds a lot more values that are supposed to maintain ASP while the older gen ASP erodes. But it should stabilize at some price with the mix of old and new generations. Since the price US consumers pay for the latest gen phone (4s, s3) is relatively the same throughout the years ($199 with 2 yr contracts), does more of the dollars go to the carriers because Samsung relies more on carriers for distribution? I am trying to understand your comment that this is standard industry phenomenon in Nokia. Does the flagship line of Nokia phones (before blackberry/iphone) arrive have similar declining ASP pattern?

    • JohnDoey

      Galaxy is just a name. Any 2 Galaxy phones do not even run the same apps.

  • For the Selling Price chart, each iPhone model also drops in price every year (by $100). By breaking out each iPhone model instead of averaging across 5 generations, I think it’d give a better picture of how iPhone may be different from Samsung’s Galaxy phones.

  • vincent_rice

    An interesting lesson here is how, once it establishes a pricing strategy through experimentation, Apple then religiously sticks to it. It gives all sorts of advantages in terms of customer psychology. Every few years the customers knows pretty well how much their particular level of iPhone/iPad/MacBook is going to cost. It’s the complete avoidance of ‘commodity’ status.

    • torifile

      Except this recent development with Apple matching Sprint’s price cut. While this is unusual for Apple, I think it will do a lot to stem the drop-off we’d otherwise see in the next month with the rumors of an update on Sept 12th.

      Ordinarily, I’d worry about this cannablizing their future sales, but as we’ve seen with past iOS product launches, supply is always the limiting factor. It’d be nice if we finally achieved a balance of supply and demand earlier in a product’s life cycle.

      • vincent_rice

        Yeah, it’s an inventory-clearing move that is eminently practical – as a life-long Jobsian it wrinkles my sense of ‘strategic purity’ however. The Cook era will of course be a more pragmatic one operationally.

      • Apple’s price match strongly suggests that the version of iPhone 4s to survive after the iPhone 5 launch will be different than the one we see today … otherwise Apple would just slowly sell the surplus 4s’s over time rather than clearing the shelves with price cuts. (Maybe the new iPhone 4s will be limited to 16GB of storage to prevent it from cannibalizing sales of the 5.)

        It also shows that Apple produced quite a few more iPhone 4s’s over the past quarter than it could sell. So it has plenty of production capacity to meet surging demand for either the iPhone, iPad or a newly released product.

        Third, the price cuts show that Apple’s ability to forecast sales (demand) cannot be trusted; the drop in demand by customers waiting for the new model 5 took Apple completely by surprise.

        Fourth, the price cuts may lower Apple’s profit margin below what it earned in previous quarters.

        Fifth, the price cuts on the 4s run the risk of angering customers who paid full price for 4s’s a few days or a few weeks ago, and a year from today may cause potential customers to postpone purchases of iPhone 5’s for the 2013 price cuts.

        All in all, the iPhone price cuts have several implications, and none of them are positive for Apple.

      • End user pricing for the iPhone has dropped in previous end-of-cycle quarters without any appreciable impact on the company. Keep an eye on revenue per phone sold (derived from quarterly revenues/units sold). It gives an idea of what Apple is able to obtain not what consumers pay.

  • Rob Scott

    Samsung and other ordinary OEMs do price erosion every quarter. Apple drop price once: when they just launched a new product and giving deals on higher capacity phones that have been EOL’d, thus a clearance markdown. Since the 8agab offering are usually new and not part of old stock they cannot be included in a price erosion calculation.

  • Given that the court figures did not include the Galaxy S III, which went on sale in the second quarter, aren’t your conclusions based on only part of the relevant data? Given that you would expect Galaxy S II sales to all but disappear once the S III went on sale, I bet you a million dollars Samsung’s phone sales growth is higher if you include their current model.

    • Tatil_S

      S III went on sale in the last quarter, so it would affect only one quarter of data. What makes you think Samsung has entered an entirely different era in the last quarter, negating the value of previous 4 to 8 quarters of performance?

      I still have not seen an S III in the wild. I had a friend who found it much more impressive than an iPhone at Verizon store, but he still has not pulled the trigger on buying his first smartphone. 2 months in every iPhone cycle, I remember seeing many iPhones around. I’ve seen more Samsung WP7 phones than Galaxies.

      • Horace listed the growth rates by quarter with Q2 2012 as -53%. I doubt that was actually the case.

      • Tatil_S

        S3 got released in the US on June 21st. How many do you think Samsung sold in 7 days to make up for the 2 million shortfall compared to the year ago quarter? (Keep in my mind, the estimates are about 10 million in 2 months worldwide.) Horace’s point is lack of sales growth on a year on year basis in contrast to iPhone, so I doubt adding S3 numbers will change the trend lines.

        Adding Galaxy Note and Nexus may have a bigger effect. Even then, neither of them seem to sell in large numbers in the US, even though they are fairly popular overseas.

    • dgrayson98

      Galaxy S III didn’t ship in the US until Q3. But you can assume some number of Galaxy S II purchases were deferred in Q2 while consumers waited for the SIII (similar to the iPhone behavior).

    • The SIII was scheduled to be shipping to some US carriers as of 21st of June, implying 10 days of sales in the quarter. I don’t know why those sales are not included in the court document.

      • The spreadsheet lists sales of 24 specific models of Samsung phones and the SIII was not included. Another tricky bit about this data set is that it was compiled as a list of “accused smartphone sales,” which means there could be some sales not included for legal reasons and not yet made clear. But the SIII, which was reported to sell millions of handsets in the early going, is definitely not listed.

      • The SIII did sell a few million units to date but it’s not known how many of those units were sold in the US between June 21 and June 31.

      • r.d

        SIII is not included in the court case.
        Apple would have to file another case.

      • Correct; the SIII is not considered relevant to the current case, and thus even if the data was obtained via discovery, it can’t be presented in this case.

        Apple tried to get an injunction against the SIII (which I think would have added it to this case), but the judge told them that if they did, it would delay the current case substantially, and Apple chose not to pursue it for now. I would expect them to start an SIII case if the current case ends favorably for them, since they could build on a favorable verdict to attack newer models.

      • El Aura

        I would assume they did not sell too many on June 31. 😉

      • JohnDoey

        Your accurate numbers are really messing with the tech nerd propaganda that Samsung is now the dominant phone maker after inventing the iPhone in 2010.

  • r.d

    Samsung did report their phone until revenues.
    so what is the % us to total phone revenues per quarter.

    for example q4 2011
    samsung reported 16.8 Billion in rev (mobile division)

    • This will make a great analysis, however we need to be careful to note that these “accused” products don’t make up all of Samsung’s US sales. They still sell non-smart non-infringing phones. Overall, smartphones are still only about 50% of Samsung global phone sales by units.

  • Ittiam


    Excellent Analysis… I have followed this news on so many tech sites, but almost all have shown only an ugly table and no analysis at all….

    I agree.. Samsung has not posed any threat to Apple. Although, they have brilliantly captured market share from Nokia and areas where Apple did not play. Like, I read somewhere that the top selling phone in US for Samsung was a mid range pre-paid phone.

    Unless Samsung can start chipping away Apple customers in US, it should not sit on its laurels.

    Sometimes I think Samsung is already becoming arrogant too quickly (who would not, when you triple your sales in one year..ha ha). For example, they have not launched Galaxy Nexus here in India and are taking too much time to upgrade their phones to newest version of Android.

  • abugida

    Horace, don’t you think you have the share of old iPhone models too low in your model? It looks like you gave 3GS and 4 less than 20 % combined in recent quarters.

    An NPD report from earlier this year —

    — suggested the following split for Dec 2011 in the US:
    iPhone 4S 57 %
    iPhone 4 32 %
    iPhone 3GS 11 %

    • abugida

      Or is the iPhone breakdown also from the court document? Then nevermind my objection.

  • abugida

    It’s interesting that Apple tried to follow this practice in the summer of 2007 when it dropped the price of the iPhone by $200 a few months after launch.

    • The original iPhone pricing was high user pricing with minimal subsidy. It was changed early into a mix of subsidy, revenue sharing and low user pricing. The revenues per phone reflect this shift as Apple moved some of the income to recurring over a two year period rather than up-front.

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  • Would you attribute the abnormal increase in price for the 4 to it’s release on Verizon 2 quarters into it’s life span?

  • BC2009

    Don’t these Samsung actuals for so many models sold in the USA cast some serious doubts on the IDC record-smashing estimates of 50.2M smartphone units for Samsung in the last quarter. After all, Apple’s multiple of worldwide to USA was around 3.1x. If we assume Samsung did 7x of US smartphone sales worldwide (even in a quarter when Europe’s economy was suffering) that would only take us to 21M units (based on the 3M total per quarter on these models). If we factor in Samsung’s models in the USA that are not represented here and include that in the multiple then maybe we get to 35M units. Just guessing here, but it seems like 50.2M units seems near impossible for last quarter and that IDC is drawing some rather exaggerated conclusions.

    • Stay tuned.

      • BC2009

        Sweet. I was hoping you’d tackle that one. I never saw if IDC’s analysis broke down sales by region and model. I am curious how far off they were in the USA specifically if they did.

      • BC2009

        And it looks like Fortune has already jumped on IDC with regards to tablet sales:

        According to IDC, Samsung sold like 2.4M tablets in Q2 which was supposedly a 172% increase. However, we now have actuals for the USA which show a 86% decrease and only 37,000 tablets sold in the USA. This would mean that the rest of the world accounted for 98.5% of all Samsung tablet sales in a quarter when European economies were suffering and sales were down for most folks.

      • Tatil_S

        These tablet numbers from the last quarter do not include 7in models or the newer Tab-2 series models, which got released in late April in the US. Let’s say if Tab-2 was included, overall sales of 10in would exceed the previous quarter by a little and reach 200k units. If 2/3 of Samsung tablets are 7in variety, then the US sales would be 25% of the total rather than 1.5%. This does not sound all that outrageous.

        I have seen far more 7 inch tablets outside the US, in countries where public transport is more popular and consumers may be more price sensitive, so even if the ratio is more skewed than 25%, it would not provide any kind of proof for bad estimates on IDC’s part.

      • Hakan_D

        I live in Europe, have travelled in quite a few of them during the last year. I have never seen a 7″ tablet. If they exist, they don’t exist in large numbers.

      • Tatil_S

        Well, I cannot say I travelled that much in Europe, but I’ll take your word for it. Let me rephrase it as “in Asian countries where public transport is more popular and consumers may be more price sensitive”. I have seen quite a few 7” tablets in the US, even though they are far outnumbered by iPads, so it is difficult to believe Europeans are the only hold outs regarding this though.

      • JohnDoey

        I live in San Francisco, which is riddled with public transit and techies. Never seen a 7-inch tablet. It is like 75% iPad/iPhone, 15% giant Android phones, and 10% (eInk) Kindles if the user has grey hair.

      • BC2009


        It is funny note that for Q1 2011, IDC estimated that Samsung sold 17.3M smartphone units. For Q2 2012, IDC estimated 50.2M smartphone units. However, Samsung reported mobile revenue was up 75% year-over-year and that profits in the “IM” parent category were up 145% year-over-year (profits growing faster than revenue seems to indicate the ASP has not dropped significantly).

        If revenue and unit sales are tracking each other with a rather stable ASP then Samsung would have sold 75% more smartphone units in Q2 2012. This puts us right at 30.3M smartphone units — well shy of the 50.2M units that IDC is now asserting.

        See IDC estimates for 2011 here:

        See Samsung earnings slides here:

    • dgrayson98

      The vast majority of Samsung’s “smartphone” sales are devices like the Prevail, which is available on Boost Mobile for $179 prepaid (no contract), sold into emerging markets. Thus their ASP across all mobile phones is ~$195.

      • JohnDoey

        The word “smartphone” is the problem. Meaningless today.

    • oases

      IDC don’t analyse. They perform.

    • JohnDoey

      IDC make up their numbers to paint an industry portrait that makes them feel good about themselves.

  • Walt French

    This data matches reasonably well with earlier US estimates from carrier numbers, so it’s a nice corroboration/amplification.

    What it obviously *doesn’t* do, however, is explain the basis of competition outside the US, which we might think of as Western Europe (where Nokia retains a strong mindshare, by many accounts), Asia and the Rest of the World. Samsung must be doing quite well vis-à-vis Apple in those regions, and I don’t think it would be unreasonable to guess that a difference in effective sales price in those regions, not apparent in the US, is all the difference.

    If Apple wins the current suit, Apple could repeat it or negotiate to a similar result across other regions where Samsung might not have very high level of damages as the Northern CA court has before it (a quirk in US design patent laws), but also where Samsung has a much thinner profit margin to justify the costs of a suit. From eyeballing the figures above, Samsung might be facing a worst-case figure upwards of $100 per phone, which could be ruinous worldwide, but also is extremely unlikely.

    The combination of the ideas suggests that Samsung’s basis of competition is that it’s “just as good as the iPhone,” which relegates it to the same role as Safeway Stores brand cola or Costco branded detergents—capable products that nobody pretends are the first to incorporate new developments, and which are fine in a stable market.

  • KirkBurgess

    According to the chart in this article the samsung galaxy nexus was in the top 3 selling smartphones list on Verizon for the first 6 months of 2012.

    That handset is missing from this data, so may skew results by its absence.

    • The data did include the Nexus S 4G from 2011. Sales followed the following pattern (quarterly): 401k, 23k, 80k, 8k. The revenue in the second quarter was negative $5 million implying that there were more returns than the 23k units sold. There were also returns in the third quarter as the revenue per unit fell to $250 from $444 at launch and recovered in the fourth quarter.

      • KirkBurgess

        So do you think the 2012 galaxy nexus (based on a soured up S2) would share a similar launch & sales decline as the nexus S (2010) & it’s 2011 rerelease with 4G?

    • That article also had the Razr Maxx as the number one phone. So, if you use that article as a judge, the iPhone sold 2.7 million units last Quarter on Verizon and they sold 2.9 “other” smartphones. Other includes Android, WP7 and RIM.

      So, lets say he Maxx sold 2.8 million units leaving the Nexus, with best, 0.1 million units.

      All other smartphones get 0.0 million units.

      How much faith do you put in that article?

  • To me the reason why the pattern for the IPhone is different is simple. It is the long tail support for their iOS. An older version Iphone still is able to run the latest iOS, therefore it still has considerable value and need not be overly discounted for sale to customers. For example, only in June 2011 when iOS5 was released, was the iPhone 3G made obsolete (its software was limited to 4.2.1 released on 22 Nov 2010). The iPhone 3GS will, except for a few features, run iOS6 … (and this was a phone which was first released in June 2009). For consumers, this has a huge number of positives and it also means that there is an after market for older Iphones at the end of say 2 year contract etc. For Samsung and other Android vendors, they need to solve this issue if they wish to compete more effectively with Apple.

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  • Larry Fritzlan

    “. . .then perhaps it’s being bought for a different reason.”

    Ask Someone if they “like their iPhone.” Their response is almost emotional. For whatever reason, the iPhone makes people smile. It is “cool.” Copycats can never be cool.

    • Ewan

      I’m not sure I like “cool” as a descriptor. This invariably leads to the mindset that iPhone is a fad, which then leads to the simpleminded question, “what will happen once the fad is over?” Apple is doomed.

      Yes, I think my iPhone is cool, but I care not a whit about showing off that I have an iPhone. To use Horace’s description, I hire it to do a job, web surfing, apps, email, phone — and it does that job fantastically — and much better than its closet competitors.

      Sure, and iPhone is cool, but that value is near the bottom of the list of why I like my iPhone. Let’s get away from Apple products being “cool”… instead, they are fantastic at doing the job we hire them to do.

      • JohnDoey

        No, “cool” is not transient. You have it or you don’t. Apple had it from 1977–1985 and from 1998–present. Samsung is wearing a tie in a cubicle, copying iPhone parts for his boss. Not cool at all. Apple is cutting pockets in blocks of aluminum and putting new kinds of computers in there and topping them off with rich audio video animation apps. Cool.

        You has it, or you don’t.

        (See: “Steves” — Jobs versus Ballmer.)

    • The correct word, for the reasons Ewan gives, is “delightful”, not “cool”.
      Delight is self-directed, cool is other-directed.

  • “The basis of competition is the aspect of an offering for which a customer is willing to pay a premium price. ”

    I think a lot of this is solved by remembering that, in the US the customer for iPhone is individuals, whereas the customer for Samsung and everyone else is the carrier. Which means that the carrier gets to say (based on whatever random shiny objects are currently fascinating its CEO) what the prices each quarter should be. I assume the negotiations between the carriers and the manufacturers each quarter are based on some combination of the carriers wanting at least some competition to Apple to continue existing, but not wanting that competition to be strong enough to be a second Apple.

    You hear this a lot, Horace, but it really is remarkable, if you go into an ATT store, the level of smarminess coupled with sheer ignorance and stupidity that you will encounter in the salespeople; and we’ve all heard over and over again how aggressively they push individuals towards certain phones.

    The obvious comparison here is to MS succeeding by catering to the desires of businesses not individuals. This is obviously a way to make money, of sorts, but it’s not a recipe for greatness; and it leaves you exposed to the Walmart effect if you depend on your buyers more than they depend on you. (This may actually be part of the explanation for Samsung’s relative success in the US; more than HTC, SE, Nokia et al, they ARE in a position, if the carriers push too hard, to tell them to piss off, because they have outside revenues. I imagine we’re never going to see the prices each carrier pays each manufacturer for its phones, but damn, that would be interesting information…)

  • Sam

    Does it makes sense to even compare hardware (Samsung vs. Apple) rather than software? Software is really what people are buying – the experience of using the device.

    Android has been a not-so-great OS until recently. Suddenly, it’s quite good. Apple’s iOS has been great for a while. The improvement in Android is what matters going forward. It’s past history is irrelevant.

    If you are a normal person (non-smartphone afficionado), the experience of using Android is quite good. You can do every important application on Android (browse web, consume content, take photos, do navigation, play popular games, etc). And the carriers are pushing it much more aggressively than before. These are the factors that matter for predicting the future. Past time-series charts of hardware sales look pretty and impressive, but they don’t really capture the metrics that matter going forward.

  • JohnDoey

    Isn’t the difference reputation and commitment?

    In 2001, Apple asked Mac users (a small group maybe, but still most of Hollywood, most music production, most design, video, graphics) to come with them to Mac OS X and they promised us it would be a better next decade there than on Windows, and it was. They saved me so much time and money compared to generic tech, and I bought Mac after Mac as well as iPod, iPhone, and iPad all on day 1, sight unseen. They proved they could manage a platform long-term through OS core upgrades, switching PC architectures, and even jumping to mobile. I feel like I can continue to just invest my tech dollar with Apple and get great results. Does Samsung have anything like that?

    People are betting their next 10 years of computing on these new devices and platforms. Apple has a proven track record and lots of loyal repeat business to count on.

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