Samsung emerges as Apple's chief rival in innovation

South Korean electronics giant is surprising source of breakthroughs in the me-too mobile market

For a technology with so much innovation, it's amazing how few innovators are out there. Practically every mobile innovation in the last five years has come from Apple. It redefined the smartphone with the iPhone, and it defined the tablet with the iPad. It brought us AirPlay video streaming. It developed the gestures that are now fundamental to most touch devices. It created iCloud syncing. It created the basic visual language for mobile apps. It created the app store concept.

Of course, other companies have also innovated. Although much of Android is clearly based on iOS approaches, its voice recogniton is an area Google pioneered in mobile; its approach to notifications and over-the-air updates were both copied by Apple in iOS 5 as well. The defunct WebOS also introduced the widget notion now common in Android and some interesting approaches to multitasking navigation that RIM's PlayBook OS uses. RIM's PlayBook OS 2.0 has a fresh approach to social network integration.

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But the reality is that Apple has been the main driver of innovation.

Although I suspect that will remain the case for years to come, there's a new innovator that might surprise you: Samsung. The South Korean electronics giant is known more for its work in display technology and for a strong focus on production methods for consumer electroncs gear it produces for itself and companies like Apple, though not so much for the kind of breakthroughs that you and I use directly.

But look at what Samsung has been doing over the last year, with a greater effort in recent months:

  • Its Galaxy Tab 10.1 was the first plausible Android tablet, and I credit Samsung for keeping Android in that game. Yes, it's a design clone of the iPad, so this is less a statement about innovation than commitment.
  • The recent Galaxy Note smartphone/tablet hybrid has a very interesting pen, with a couple of apps that take groundbreaking advantage of it. The idea of pen computing is not new, but neither are many of the concepts that Apple has used in iPhones and iPads. The innovation lies in making a compelling user proposition for the technology, a feat Microsoft failed to accomplish for more than a decade with its Windows for Pen Computing efforts. Unfortunately, the UI for "optimized" apps on the 5-inch-screen Galaxy Note has many shortcomings.
  • But kudos to Samsung for not giving up and instead bringing the technology to a 10-inch Galaxy Note tablet later this year, where the base Android UI is already well optimized for the screen size, requiring no UI mods.
  • Samsung is also working on a smartphone called the Galaxy Beam (set for release this year) with a built-in pico projector; that concept should be a hit among salespeople and marketers, who practically live on their smartphones and tablets when on the road. The concept has been floating around for years, but Samsung may be the one to make it real.
  • Drawing from its display-technology roots, Samsung promises to deliver smartphones with flexible screens this year, and tablets after. I'm not creative enough to figure out what value a curved screen would add to a smartphone or tablet (a rollup device?), but I'm eager to see what Samsung has in mind.
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