Apple vs. Samsung: the real battle for mobile supremacy

We hear so often that the the future of mobile will boil down to an entrenched battle between Apple (s AAPL) and Google,(s GOOG) or the iPhone and Android. But that’s far too broad a way of looking at things. True, Android has established itself as the dominant smartphone OS, but that includes many smartphones from different companies, compared to just Apple and its iPhone. There is, however, a particular hardware maker making excellent use of Android to take it to Apple on several fronts. That’s Samsung. And how the battle between the two plays out over the next few years is going to be fascinating.

The best illustration of the brewing brouhaha came just last week when Apple announced that between April and June of this year it sold more than 20 million iPhones. Wall Street gossip indicates Samsung may announce somewhere between 19 million and 21 million smartphones sold during the second quarter with its earnings results on Friday. In other words, the two are pretty much neck and neck in smartphone momentum right now.

Google may provide the software for the majority of Samsung’s smartphones, but it doesn’t have direct control over hardware; plus, designing phones is not where its expertise lays. Samsung knows a thing or two about hardware and striking a chord with consumer electronics buyers. The Korean consumer electronics maker and Apple compete head-to-head in several categories and have similar approaches to designing not just smartphones but also tablets (perhaps too similar? More on that later). And lately Samsung has even begun taking a more Apple-like approach to differentiating its phones and tablets from the rest with its own flavor of Android software.

Here’s a look at a few of the fronts where Apple and Samsung are or will someday possibly be facing off.

  • Phones. Samsung makes more than just Android phones. But it’s with Android that the company is building a ton of momentum right now. Samsung announced Wednesday that in just 85 days it’s sold 5 million Galaxy S II phones. That’s following success with the original Galaxy S, which at 10 million sold last year was a solid hit. As referenced earlier, Apple sold 20 million iPhones in the second quarter this year, and it didn’t update the current model in June as in past years. It’s widely expected Apple will release a new iPhone this fall, and it will be interesting to see how or if that affects Verizon (s VZW) and AT&T (s T) sales of Samsung phones.
  • Tablets. It’s not really a contest yet. Apple has sold about 14 million iPads this calendar year so far, and UBS said on Wednesday its expects the ultimate number to be just under 38 million for 2011. Samsung, at least according to UBS, is expected to sell about 5 million tablets this year. At $529, the Galaxy Tab 10.1. is just barely pricier than the entry-level $499 iPad 2, but it also has a slightly bigger screen and is 4G-ready. While all tablets are still way behind the iPad in sales figures, many consider Samsung’s Tab to be the best — and most competitive iPad alternative — Android tablet so far.
  • Software. Samsung isn’t just taking Google’s Android handout and slapping it onto devices. Taking a page from Apple’s playbook, Samsung has created its own TouchWiz UI that extends across its Android- and Bada-based devices. In other words, it’s on its way to establishing a standard Samsung user interface even though it’s taking the operating system from Google. It’s also begun a more iTunes-esque approach by integrating its own media software that allows music, e-books and video downloads to users’ phones.
  • The courtroom. It’s just that similarity that has troubled Apple. Samsung’s design of Galaxy phones and the Galaxy Tab, as well as the Epic 4G and Nexus S, are so similar to the iPhone and iPad that Apple took them to court over it. From the shape of the devices to the home screen layout of apps, icon design and even the packaging, Apple claims Samsung is blatantly copying its two most successful products. Samsung, naturally, has countersued, a move that’s become pretty much standard ops in mobile. But for Apple and Samsung, this litigiousness makes for a rather awkward situation, what with Samsung being a primary supplier of chips, displays, and flash memory to Apple — all parts critical to Apple’s marquee products.
  • The ecosystem factor. Well over half of Apple revenue is coming from mobile products, but a quick perusal of an Apple Store would show you a slightly broader range of consumer electronics for customers to choose from: computers, monitors, iPods, Apple TV. Samsung on the electronics side, though, is far broader: the company makes everything from HD TVs, DVRs and Blu-ray Disc players to laptops, camcorders and refrigerators. Once considered a purveyor of cheap knockoffs, Samsung has grown to become a formidable player in electronics with a strong brand identity. While Apple’s other Android-wielding competitors in hardware don’t venture much outside mobile, Samsung brings plenty of marketing heft and reach in all areas of consumer electronics.

Looking ahead, an especially interesting twist could come should Apple decide to break into TVs. It’s been rumored for a while that Apple is working on a connected HDTV that could make some serious waves, bringing that Apple flair for design and its loyal and spendy customers to a market that has long been commoditized and become fairly predictable. So far, at least, nothing has come of those rumors yet. And you know who’s probably happiest about that? The world’s biggest maker of TVs: Samsung.

Thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user bfurnace