The Real Reason Samsung is Beating Apple

As Apple's stock struggles to climb back — the company has lost $280 billion in value since September — a lot of pundits are pointing fingers at lagging iPhone demand. There are even rumblings about the Apple board seeking a replacement for Tim Cook as CEO, though I don't believe he's going anywhere. Nevertheless, Apple is losing more and more ground to rival Samsung by the day, a gap that will only widen when the Galaxy S4 debuts. The question is why — and I have the answer.

The real reason Samsung is beating Apple isn't bigger screens or better marketing, though those things certainly help. It comes down to apps. That's right: Apple's biggest strength has become its greatest weakness.

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If you watch any iPhone or iPad commercial today, it's all about apps. The message: Smartphones are Swiss Army knives, and we have the best tools to help you get the most out of your phone. Well, we don't, Apple is saying, but our store does. You just need to pick the right app from among more than 700,000 options. That's not a very sexy message to me. Meanwhile, Samsung has moved in the exact opposite direction.

Just look at the Galaxy S4, which has so many features that owners might forget the Google Play store even exists. The camera app offers a wide array of functions, from dual-shooting using the front and back camera to an Eraser mode for deleting unwanted subjects from photos. Then there's the gesture support, great for flipping through music tracks with a wave of your hand or answering the phone when you're behind the wheel. Add in the S Fitness and S Translate apps and you have far fewer reasons to research and download apps.

Here's Samsung's message: There might be an app for that, but why bother?

There's no question that most developers continue to choose iOS first for debuting their apps. Flipboard, “Infinity Blade,” Vine and Twitter #Music are just a few examples. But when it comes to choosing a smartphone, apps quickly take a backseat to a better out-of-box experience. Samsung started down this road with the Galaxy S3's myriad sharing features — such as touching devices to share files — and now it's stepping on the gas.

Samsung also offers superior multitasking with its Multi View feature, letting you view two apps at the same time, and you can toggle multiple settings from the notification area without having to dive into the settings menu. As more smartphone users become power users, Samsung is quickly becoming the step up phone for iPhone owners.

If you judge the iPhone 5 based on the overall user experience and not the design, you'll find that Apple isn't innovating quickly enough. And when the company does try something new, the results are mixed at best. While Shared Photo Streams and Siri’s newfound sports and movie knowledge have been welcome enhancements, Maps was a flop and Passbook feels like a half-hearted attempt to enter the mobile payment fray.

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I'm not saying that apps don't matter. Both Microsoft and BlackBerry wish they had more of them so their platforms could gain traction. But once you blow past the 500,000 mark and you've covered most of the options consumers want, there comes a point of diminishing returns.

In order for Apple to slow Samsung's momentum and truly create the smartphone to beat, the company will need to do a lot more than just “flatten” the design of its upcoming OS. The next iPhone and iOS 7 must offer features that are so clever and essential that shoppers visit the App Store less. In other words, Apple must bite the hand that feeds it. Hard.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter and Google+.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.