Samsung May Be Apple's First Real Mobile Competitor: Analysts

While Apple revolutionized the mobile industry, Samsung chugged away in the background. Now it's poised to become Apple's first real competitor.

This week, smartphone giants Nokia, Motorola Mobility and Samsung posted fourth-quarter earnings that, each in its own way, reflected the looming presence-and successes-of Apple.

Motorola CEO Sanjay Jha noted that the Android-booster had made strides in the smartphone space during the quarter, but that sales were nonetheless affected by Verizon's announcement that it would soon offer an iPhone 4. Meanwhile, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, despite announcing that the world's leading phone maker had managed to increase smartphone sales by 38 percent during the quarter, conceded that Nokia still hasn't created a smartphone that can compete with the appeal of the iPhone or top-selling Android devices.

"Nokia faces some significant challenges in our competitiveness and our execution," Elop said a Jan. 27 statement. "In short, the industry changed, and now it's time for Nokia to change faster."Samsung, however, had a different message for investors. "Despite the difficult business environment ... we achieved record-high results both in terms of sales and operating profit in 2010," Robert Yi, vice president and head of Samsung Electronics' investor relations team, said in a Jan. 28 statement.The Korean device maker, following cues from Apple, introduced a line of Galaxy S smartphones during 2010 that saw sales of 10 million units. The company also unveiled the successful Galaxy Tab, its answer to the Apple iPad. Samsung's overall mobile device sales reached 80.7 million units during the quarter, bringing year-end totals to 280 million units, thus "outperforming the overall market," Samsung noted in its earnings statement.With the iPhone, Apple changed the way the world uses smartphones, and with the iPad, it similarly reinvented a form factor that has transformed the PC market. While PC shipments alone inched up less than 5 percent during the last quarter, with media tablet sales factored in, that figure rises to a sunnier 19.2 percent, according to research firm Canalys. While Apple has long been the king of the mountain, in Samsung it may finally have some real competition for its crown."Samsung has been on this journey toward a more prominent position for years," EndPoint Technologies analyst Roger Kay told eWEEK, adding that it's notable that Samsung has managed to sell more than 1 million Galaxy Tabs, establishing that there's a market not just for the iPad but for tablets.Still, it's not the only vendor with a shot at Apple's crown."Motorola has every possibility of being able to pull this together," Kay said.However, Nokia is a different with a different problem."The fact that Nokia is still the dominant platform, even if the platform is outdated, makes it hard to step away from the trough to invest in other things," said Kay. While Nokia has a long road ahead, "Motorola can step on the gas with Android and compete with Samsung."Can it overtake Apple, though?"Samsung is best positioned among the mobile phone vendors to become a volume leader in smartphones on the strength of its Android handset lineup. However, I believe that it will have to wait a while before it can unseat Apple's iPhone," Ken Hyers, an analyst with Technology Business Research told eWEEK in an e-mail. "While Android's global sales overall will surpass Apple iPhone sales, Samsung will be only a part (though a dominating part) of that mix."Hyers added that Apple will sell at least 20 million iPhones in 2011-10 million to 12 million of which will go to Verizon Wireless customers. By contrast, Samsung sold slightly less than 10 million Galaxy S devices worldwide in 2010, and though that figure will grow, doubling it "will be a stretch."Samsung, Endpoint's Kay said, has established that there can be an Apple competitor-a thing that didn't used to exist. "But no one's an actual threat yet."