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

South Korea is a pioneering technology market but recent news about Samsung, from legal judgments to dealing with bloggers, spotlights some differences in attitude.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

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.

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