Is there anything Samsung doesn’t do? The same week I bought myself a shiny new Galaxy S II, they launched a solar-powered netbook for use in the developing world. Unlike any American or European company, Samsung Electronics manufactures smartphones and their memory chips, TVs and their screens, computers and their hard drives. They’re the only entity that’s both arms dealer and aggressor in the midst of the biggest arms race the tech world has ever seen. (Meanwhile, their sister companies in the Samsung Group build both ships and skyscrapers, sell life insurance, and operate theme parks.) Their revenue exceeds that of Apple or Microsoft, and their global reach is unparalleled.
Sure, they’re fighting a massive patent war with Apple around the world – but at the same time, every iPhone is 26% Samsung; even if they lose every legal battle, every iPad/iPhone/iTouch sale will still cha-ching in part into Samsung’s coffers. Their flagship phones and devices are Android, but they also maintain their own entirely separate Bada smartphone platform, and have even kept one finger in the MeeGo pie, while declining to acquire it. Oh, yes, and they’re also apparently launching a Windows 8 tablet any day now. Six months ago this seemed like a pointless lack of focus, and reminded me of William Gibson’s Josef Virek: “Aspects of my wealth have become autonomous, by degrees; at times they even war with one another. Rebellion in the fiscal extremes.” But now that Google has bought Motorola, and there’s a real risk of other Android vendors becoming second-class citizens, it seems like wise long-term thinking.
So does that solar-powered netbook. Developing markets are ripe for a massive boom in consumer technology, but are still hampered by shoddy infrastructure, especially power cuts and shortages. That means both rural areas and megacities alike will welcome tech whose lifespan is prolonged by solar power. Of course, the real action will be in cheap smartphones, as I predicted last year, and as shown in Kenya this year, where Huawei’s $90-with-no-contract Android phone has quickly become a bestseller. I expect that within the next six months, Samsung will launch its own bare-bones, cut-price Android phone — and maybe a companion solar charger — to join Huawei in targeting the five billion people who live outside the current “traditional” smartphone market.
And here’s another intriguing left-field prospect. Their products compete directly with Apple’s, in both the courtroom and the market, and now that Google has bought Motorola, they too have become half a competitor. But Samsung doesn’t have anything remotely like the software talent or online presence you find in Cupertino and Mountain View. If they wanted to expand into that space as well (admittedly a big if) they could take a half-step in that direction by acquiring poor crippled Yahoo!. It would be relatively cheap, by Samsung’s gargantuan standards; it would fit nicely into their megaconglomerate soup-to-nuts strategy; and I suspect it would also be the best thing to happen to Yahoo! in a long time.