What's behind Samsung's culture clash with the West?

What's behind Samsung's culture clash with the West?

Summary: South Korea is a pioneering technology market but recent news about Samsung, from legal judgments to dealing with bloggers, spotlights some differences in attitude.

TOPICS: Samsung, Patents

Want fast broadband and fast mobile broadband years before anyone else? Move to South Korea. SK Telecom rolled out both long before the US or the UK, thanks to a combination of a population clustered in a few geographical areas, business habits — working late is part of the culture — and an addiction to online gaming that puts it in the same league as baseball or soccer in other countries.

When 3G was first arriving in the UK, I used to hear tales of mobile-phone makers visiting a mobile operator and emptying out a briefcase of different feature phones to choose from — all of which had been on sale in South Korea for a year or more.

Samsung Series 7 slate
Samsung Series 7 slate. Image credit: David Meyer

But those cultural differences don't always translate well when it comes to relationships with businesses outside South Korea. For years, Samsung has been a fast follower that will undercut and improve on existing products from competitors, but not necessarily put enough work into a product to really succeed with it.

The company makes one of almost everything, from televisions to cameras to microwaves to fridges to phones to tablets to notebooks to MP3 players to components. If you can come up with a product category, Samsung will make one of it. Windows Mobile? Samsung had one phone, the Omnia, plus the later keyboard-packing BlackJack. Windows Phone 7? Samsung had one phone, reprising the Omnia.

If a product succeeds — and often these are excellent products — Samsung will do more of the same, but not in a particularly joined-up manner.

No sense of a family of products

I've used a Samsung MP3 player for years. It records voice and FM radio, displays text documents and photos, plays a couple of Flash games, and does stereo Bluetooth audio. What it doesn't do is compete with the iPod, partly because while there was another model along a few months later and another after that, they were all completely different products with a new interface and mix of features, rather than a family of products that made sense together.

And with Samsung components, that different-every-month approach caused problems for some buyers who didn't lock in a long-enough supply contract. The part that was so much cheaper than everyone else one month, might no longer be in production the next.

The Samsung Series 7 slate is the thinnest, lightest, best-specified slate PC I've used, with a sleek design and a great screen. It's like an update of the pioneering Motion Computing Tablet PCs.

Much like the implication that Samsung products are just like Apple kit but cheaper, the results of the only Samsung victory to date might backfire.

It's initially similar to the slate Asus announced some time before Samsung, but it has the 1,366-pixel screen resolution you need to snap two WinRT apps side by side in Windows 8, which the Asus model doesn't — making it instantly obsolete.

It also has an odd bug with the physical Windows button that means it randomly stops working and there's no keyboard to fit into the docking port. The next version of the slate was announced recently as the Ativ outside the US, but there hasn't been an update to the Series 7 drivers since July this year.

The updated Samsung Series 9 was used by Microsoft to showcase touchpad gestures, but the drivers aren't public yet, and there's no sign of them appearing for the original Series 9, which was the first real ultrabook.

Samsung has its own phone OS, Bada. Although sales are falling and Samsung seems to have turned its attention to Tizen. I view Tizen as another one-of-anything product category, given that it's the successor to Intel's Moblin operating system which merged with Nokia's Maemo to become MeeGo and was swiftly abandoned by everyone else.

Differences in culture might explain the stories of bloggers from India and France who thought they were being taken to the IFA trade show or the London Olympics as guests of Samsung to cover Samsung and other events,  and who claimed they were expected to represent the company far more directly than they had been told and treated to a more brow-beating style of management than is common in Western countries.

Relative value of patents

But there's a bigger difference of attitudes brewing, and that's over the relative value of patents. Apple's landmark victory over Samsung in court hasn't been the only relevant legal decision recently — and much like the implication that Samsung products are just like Apple kit but cheaper, the results of the only Samsung victory to date might backfire.

Shortly before Samsung lost in a US court, it won a very similar but smaller-scale trial in the Seoul Central District Court. The multiple buttons made Samsung's phone so different, ruled the court, that it wasn't copying the iPhone. But Apple had also infringed two Samsung patents on parts of the 3G standard, the court decided and fined both companies.

Essentially, that South Korean court ruling says a company that has standards-essential patents — which only get to be part of a standard if the company promises to license them on fair terms, and are usually already licensed to component manufacturers such as Qualcomm that other companies buy from — can hold companies to ransom. Companies are then faced with the choice of an absurdly high licence fee, such as the 2.5 percent of the cost of an Xbox or PC that Motorola has asked Microsoft for, or licensing their own patents in return.

Samsung has already threatened to sue Apple over 4G and LTE patents. Another South Korean company, LG, is suing Toshiba and Samsung over patents in the DVD standard. Several US and European courts have blocked suits over patents that are part of a standard. An Australian judge has called the idea "ridiculous". The FTC and US Department of Justice have both criticised the idea and Samsung has been under investigation by the EU over potential abuse of standards-essential patent rights since January this year.

That a South Korean court has been the only one to support using patents that are part of a standard as a bargaining chip is a reminder of the differences between the mostly free market of the West and the more mercantilist approach of some Asian countries such as South Korea, where the state is much more active in promoting business interests.

Topics: Samsung, Patents

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • The Photocopier Nation

    It's a cultural thing. The Korean manufacturers see something work, and then slavishly copy it and pump it out cheaper for those with the Wal-Mart mentality. It's offensive and it pervades all manufacturing sectors. The Bentley-like "wings" of one Hyundai model is disturbing. They make their cars look like Benzes or BMWs without a hint of remorse. To us Westerners who don't have the Wal-Mart mentality it's highly unethical and I won't be buying any Korean products any time soon.
    • Americans egos gone wild.

      Considering there is very little of anything that doesn't come from Asia.
      It seems Americans can't reconcile the fact the they are not the best anymore and even though all the products they buy, from iPhones to refrigerators, come from Asia they find solace in demonizing them.
      • I think you're off base there, at least with my comment...

        I don't think that's the case. I think it's more that "everyone deserves everything", and in the Wal-Mart mentality that means you drive the price down so that it's cheap. That means you have to go offshore for production where labour is cheaper, rather than keep the jobs in your own country. In the 60s, one TV was a big expense for a family. A mohair couch would cost $600. All of these were a big expense for someone who would be wealthy and bring home a whopping $1000/mo. Now TVs are cheap, and nobody has jobs. We need to re-think priorities, and perhaps be paying $8000 for a 42" LCD that's built in Ohio by a company that employs a local guy with a decent job.
    • You think apple isn't a copycat.

      Try asking someone from xerox what they think? Apple is a copy cat.
      Try asking someone from Commodore what they think about the MAC.. Apple is a copy cat.

      Apple copied everything they ever saw, and only got a couple right.
      Reality Bites
      • LOL

        You've gotta be kidding. A ZD writer posted this nonsense yesterday and this is no less idiotic. There are so many holes in that comment it's not worth replying to, other than to say Apple paying Xerox PARC for its ideas (which it expanded and improved on very significantly to the point of MS needing to copy Apple), and Samsung blatantly photocopying iPads and iPhones so that you can barely tell the difference are two very, very different tales.
        • nonsense

          Bill gates bought a Xerox star, Apple went to a demo and saw a Xerox star before making Lisa. Both copied the xerox star, which has all the usual features on the desktop that we've become accustomed to using: physical representations of things like printers, folders, documents, and features like overlapping multiple windows, multiple fonts, buttons and such like.
          Xerox at the time could not patent these due to Antitrust.
          Apple can in no way claim to have invented this, despite employing people from Xerox star project.
    • China = Photocopier Nation

      Korea and Japan on the other hand follow a blend of innovating and trend following, just like American companies.

      Did you have a problem when BMW's Mini came out with a winged badge too?

      Did you have a problem when Acura completely ripped off Audi's tail light designs?

      Or when Honda stole the BMW 7 Series tail lights for their last gen Accord and the Hyundai Genesis tail lights for their next gen Accord?

      Or when Ford ripped off Aston Martin's front design?
      Or when Lexus ripped off BMW's tail light designs?
      Or when Chrysler ripped off Hyundai's sculpted grille?

      This kind of thing happens regardless of country borders. It's universal.

      But there is one country that goes even beyond this and fits the photocopier moniker to the teeth, and that's China.

      I'm fine with what US, Korean, Japanese, Swedish, etc countries do. Like you, I'm just concerned about China and the Wal Mart mentality you mentioned.
    • So you won't buy Korean..................

      Well, I and a lot of others are out of the apple market just as well.
      Slavishly? Isn't that what the apple dodo-heads were saying.
      I have seen Samsung phones. Yeah, when apple can patent a rectangle with rounded corners, I guess there was some copying going on.
      Pure BS.
  • Well you may call few physicals buttons too little.

    You are entitled to. Even US jury rendered that FULL QWERTY keyboard is not enough to make phone different from Apple phones.......................
    • Thats because the jury was stupid

      broken patent system and stupid courts and even dumber judges... yeah recipe for monopolies like microsoft and apple to rape and pillage freely.
      Reality Bites
  • Patent system is broken

    The patent system especially in US is broken. In current scenario, companies like Apple are allowed to file ridiculous broad design patents which stop anyone else designing anything like them. Look anywhere and you will find that sooner or later a design becomes standard. For example look at most cars in the market, they have four rounded wheels and a steering wheel to control its direction.

    If patent system expects standards based patents to be licensed to everyone at fair cost then it also need to ensure that certain design features are obvious and should not be allowed to be patentable.

    There are many players in the market who created really ground breaking important innovations which are considered for standards. These players are then punished by those who obtain ridiculous patents for obvious things (because they run first to patent office). Since these rogue players do not have standards based patents they don't have to license it; however those who create genuine innovation are forced to license it.
  • hmmm

    So a functional patent by Samsung is not as inovative as a non functional patent by Apple? Btw, the case is not over yet.
  • It's only what apple does best: RDF+FUD+BS

    In response to your title: "What's behind Samsung's culture clash with the West?"

    There's no such thing as culture clash, only the apple sponsored FUD about it. That's all they are good for.

    History proves evil propaganda works:

    All propaganda has to be popular and has to accommodate itself to the comprehension of the least intelligent of those whom it seeks to reach.

    How fortunate for governments that the people they administer don't think.

    Words build bridges into unexplored regions.

    The victor will never be asked if he told the truth.

    The great masses of the people will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one.

    He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.

    Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.

    --Adolf Hitler
    • "Evil" propaganda -- when saints and sinners unite

      It's all a matter of context and framing.

      Ironic that all those talking points you're attributing to A.H. - all of which are accurate btw - HE attributed to learning from his enemies, namely certain Jewish financial cabal(s) and Communist rabble-rousers that were agitating for the subjugation and/or overthrow of the German state.

      Hitler had no more corner on, or devotion to, those propaganda pearls than did his sovereign counterparts in the US, UK and France. Moreover, they paled by comparison to the indoctrination methodologies and dissemination techniques employed by the Soviet Union under Lenin and Trotsky, and then of course Stalin, our erstwhile ally.

      Hard to believe anyone, short of an imbecile or mute, couldn't notice that these very things are being effectively leveraged by the powers-that-be (aka the victors, our contemporary rulers and masters) even to this day, both on governmental AND corporate/commercial levels. Ya don't say... *doink*
  • Bottom line is this

    The US started all this stuff and rightfully so decades ago before the world was even civil and now we expect Europe and Asians to follow or adhere to our Patent policies. Sorry it isn't going to happen but coming soon will be an attempt at a World Governing Body to take care of stuff like this and we can't do anything about it.
  • nonsense.

    it's not about the value of patents, it's about their legitimacy. the current patent system is utterly broken, and the apple-samsung trial is the farce to illustrate this fact.

    it's emphatically not a cultural thing, and merely asinine to associate apple's position with "the West".
  • Buncha Apple Hater IT Guys...

    Forcing Samsung to actually doing something creative and innovative rather than copy does not a monopoly make.
  • Article promotes double standards

    This piece reeks of someone who clearly has either very little awareness of global issues or a hidden agenda to push. She doesn't seem like someone with an "evil" agenda, so I'm betting she just has the misfortune of not understanding the situation sufficiently.

    It's a little unfortunate people who know how to write, but do not know how to really think, get to publish these kinds of articles.

    She claims that Samsung's wide, "non-cohesive" offering of products, and the recent events involving bloggers and the patent trial with Apple all stem from some inherent cultural difference between Asia and the West.

    There obviously will always be some measure of culture clashes between any two countries. But the author's particular choices of "evidence" don't support her thesis at all for the scenario she's examining.

    Is it a cultural issue that Samsung offers too many products? If so, is she going to admit that it's also a cultural issue that Google, an American company, also suffers the same practice? Google offers so many web based services, and most of them aren't even well maintained or successful.

    Is it a culture clash between Asia and the West that led to the misunderstanding in Germany between 2 INDIAN bloggers and employees from Samsung INDIA? If that wasn't clear enough, let me repeat. Yes, you read that right. The Indian bloggers were dealing with Indian employees within Samsung India. So is it still a culture clash?

    Is it a culture clash that led to a French blogger being asked to become a promoter for Samsung after winning a Samsung sponsored contest? Is it a cultural issue that people would frown upon her if she refused to do so? Especially when she didn't do her research on what she was getting into before entering the contest? Is it then a culture clash when Apple threatens to ban bloggers who do not agree to write glowing reviews for Apple?

    Is it a cultural issue that Samsung head honchos are extremely demanding of their employees? So when Steve Jobs berates and humiliates employees in the US, is that due to a culture clash?

    Is it a culture clash that Apple was found guilty of infringing standard patents in an Asian court? So is it a culture clash that the US is 1 of only 2 countries in the world to give Apple a win over Samsung based on suspect design patents? And by a jury, if you can believe it, while the rest of the world relies on judges. Germany is the only other country to find only one device that infringes Apple's patent, but Germany is known to be a patent friendly territory that does not examine the validity of awarded patents. On the other hand, Apple has lost almost every claim in almost every other country in the world. Is that also a culture clash?

    So why the double standard in this article? So it's a culture clash when it involves an Asian company and the West, but it's not a culture clash when the exact same types of issues arise solely within the West?

    I think we can all answer that paradox. Based on the evidence, this has nothing to do with culture clash.

    The writer's analysis suffers from a confirmation bias. It's clear the writer is looking at the issue myopically when there's clear evidence everything she's critiquing Samsung for exists equally for many other large corporations in the world like Apple, Google, or Microsoft. She conveniently ignored them.

    Am i disagreeing with her evidence? No. I'm disagreeing with the conclusion she arrived at with the evidence she used.

    Nothing the writer brings up has anything to do with culture clash. This is simply about how ALL big corporations operate.
    • no agenda beyond calling it as I see it

      I really don't see many of these as equivalent; there is a different management culture at work in every different country. In Hong Kong, it's not rude to answer your phone in a meeting and the people you're meeting with will agree with you without having any intention of accepting your proposal. Korean management techniques can seem extremely dictatorial and hours are routinely far longer; even more of a contrast for someone used to French working habits. And I'd encourage you to look at the scale of Samsung's portfolio; it's so much wider than Google in both number and scope, even if you count internal Google products like their server design. Very few companies make both flash memory and 'fridges ;-)
      • Again you're not thinking deep enough

        First, I already mentioned there does exist cultural differences, and the examples you listed are superb. But you missed the point. These examples do illustrate a culture clash. However the examples you used in the article do not.

        Second, you fail to understand how an analogy works. Google wasn't used as an example to illustrate the particular types of products they offer or the exact number of products. It was used to illustrate the mentality of a company that pushes myriads of different products without much care in how they fit into a cohesive ecosystem or whether they will be supported. Something which you faulted Samsung for. Fridge or flash memory, they're interchangeable.

        It's intellectually lazy and dishonest to ascribe the issues you touch upon to differences between Asian and Western culture, when clearly most have occurred under circumstances that don't even follow an Asian-Western relational pattern or have also been equally practiced in Western businesses.

        Again. Am I denying there exists cultural differences? No. I'm refuting your claim that the issues you brought up in your article are a result of cultural differences.