Early IFA Thoughts and Samsung

I’m writing this in my hotel room after a day and a half of IFA press events, with the main exhibition due to open its doors tomorrow. However, I already feel I have a sense of the event.

There’s a huge push behind 3D, as there was at CES earlier in the year, but there is still a lot of scepticism about the roll out in Europe. The average quality of sets was up again with great visual quality at all the big brands whose booths were previewed – LG, Panasonic, Sharp, Samsung and Sony. There was no sign of wireless sets, although slim, 3D and LED were all topics. All of the brands talked about boosting the range of internet content on their sets, with Sharp, Philips and Loewe joining together to provide a common platform. I liked the clever remote control that Samsung showed on its high-end set.

The mood is certainly upbeat, partly because it is in Germany, which seems to be going against the trend of most of Europe, and most of the world. Q2 sales of TVs were good in Germany because of World Cup promotions. We said that we thought that any boost in Q2 would just be offset in Q3 and this seems to be the case, so we’re not revising our TV forecasts up after some good Q2 results.

Samsung clearly made a big noise (in every sense) about its new Tab tablet. It clearly sees the category as one that it needs to be successful in, for obvious reasons. The product looks pretty competent, although it is less desirable from a design point of view, in my opinion, than the iPad. It is based on Android and has great functionality, but it does look, at the size that it is, somewhat smaller than the iPad – more like a big smartphone than a separate class of device. I’m less convinced that it is the notebook replacement that the iPad might be. On the other hand, it’s too big, basically, to be a phone, I think.  (However, I did check that a Tab would fit in an inside jacket pocket and it does – which makes it quite convenient).

However, competing with Apple really means succeeding not just at the hardware level, but also in building a competent set of apps for its devices, from smartphones to TVs. There are a lot of challenges. Apps designed for use on the road with a smartphone form factor and input/output limitations which will be very different on a tablet, a notebook or a TV. Samsung also has to change its culture and that will be tough. Samsung is pumping money heavily into the development and marketing of apps and that should help (the firm announced a European apps competition with prize money of >€500,000 today).

Samsung is known for great hardware, fast decision making, a top down structure and relentless execution. A company that is good at those things may be less good at the creativity needed to develop really new apps or to understand those that do.

However, it is a relief to hear a company that wants to create a future and sees its job as doing this. I remember having the discussion with Dell when it became the largest PC company in the world for a while, having pursued a policy of ‘fast following’. Ah, we asked Dell (at our first DisplayForum conference in Nice) what happens now you’re the leader for market share? The company really didn’t have an answer. Unsurprisingly, in my view, they are no longer the number one.

There are questions about whether Samsung has the culture to do what it needs to do to continue to dominate the market by developing new technologies and applications, but at least the company knows that it has to try. I wouldn’t bet too heavily against it….