The Latest Challenger to Apple Is. . .Samsung?

Rare is the company that can consider itself a true rival of Apple (AAPL). Microsoft (MSFT) had the honor in the 1980s and 1990s, when it adapted the Macintosh graphical user interface into Windows and became the dominant operating system provider. More recently, Google (GOOG) has filled the role of Apple's chief foe by launching the Android mobile operating system, which is gobbling up market share in smartphones, stealing some thunder from the iPhone.

But if there's room for a new Apple rival, Samsung Electronics (SSNLF) would like to apply for the role. Since its launch, Apple's iPad has dominated the tablet computer industry in the mainstream consumer market. Only one other tablet has garnered sufficient buzz and sales to be considered even a potential rival: Samsung's Galaxy Tab.

Samsung launched the Galaxy Tab in October and sold 1 million units in its first 60 days. Sounds impressive. But Apple more than doubled that rate, selling 2 million iPads in under 60 days, and moved 8 million overall in 2010. Caris & Co. estimates Samsung will sell 8 million Galaxy Tabs in 2011 -- still dwarfed by the 35 million iPads the research firm expects Apple to sell.

Samsung, though, is already bigger than Apple in terms of revenue. It's forecast to report $137 billion in 2010 revenue, more than double the $65 billion Apple took in during its most recent fiscal year. But most of Samsung's income comes from semiconductors and display screens, and as Samsung noted Monday, declining prices for these commodities are hurting the company's financial health this quarter.

Mirroring Apple's Lineup

To offset those falling revenues, Samsung is looking to consumer products like smartphones and tablets. Consumer devices are a minority of Samsung's business, and its brand doesn't carry the cachet that Apple's does. But it's interesting to note that much of its consumer lineup -- mobile phones, tablets, laptops, MP3 players and smart TVs -- mirrors the lineup that Apple has been building over the past decade.

In some areas, like the emerging market for Internet-connected TVs, Samsung has a pretty good shot at competing with Apple for early market share. In others, like smartphones, its sales lag those of Apple's iPhones, but are still respectable. Samsung has sold 10 million Galaxy S phones, becoming the first Android phone to surpass that milestone.

But it's the tablet market that may allow Samsung to make the biggest gains against Apple this year. Forrester Research recently revised upward its 2011 tablet forecast to 24.1 million unit sales, compared with 10.3 million last year (Caris & Co.'s estimate is much higher: 54 million tablets in 2011, with Apple selling two out of every three.)

For Samsung to carve out a big share of that market, it will have to push aside other Android device makers such as Motorola (MOT), which made a big splash at last week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) when it unveiled its Xoom tablet. The Xoom will feature front and rear cameras, a Tegra 2 dual-core processor from Nvidia (NVDA) and run Honeycomb, the 3.0 version of the Android OS. Motorola is shipping 750,000 Xooms this quarter. Asus is also planning tablets with similar features.

Cheap Generic Android Tablets

Then there are non-Android devices hoping to claw out a piece of the market. Microsoft will be pushing its Windows tablets, although products associated with the company generated fairly weak buzz at last week's CES. One exception was Samsung's own Windows-powered Sliding PC 7 Series, a tablet that seems as if it had been cross-bred with a netbook, for consumers who can't decide which type of product to buy.

More likely to make dent in the market is Research In Motion (RIMM), whose BlackBerry Playbook has been receiving positive initial reviews from influential blogs. The Playbook may not be ready until the summer, however, and it's not clear how innovative the tablet will still feel by then. Loyalty runs high among BlackBerry lovers, though, so there should be an early market for the Playbook.

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Older brands with big marketing muscle, such as Dell (DELL) and HP (HPQ), are also entering the market. And of course, Apple is also planning an upgrade to the iPad, which will reportedly feature a dual-core processor and two cameras. So the race to include the latest innovations will remain tough at the high end.

What may catch Samsung and others by surprise, however, is the low end of the tablet market. Bearing unimaginative names like Apad and Haipad, these generic Android tablets generally sell for less than $150 and can run as low as $99. They may appeal to consumers who are interested in the convenience of a tablet, but not if it means paying upwards of $500. And they may speed up the commoditization of tablets, bringing down both prices and the margins of high-end manufacturers.

Samsung's best hope to become a genuine rival to Apple in the mobile-device business is to find a way to ensure that its tablets keep standing out from the rest of the Android pack. Today, the Galaxy Tab gives Samsung a strong position in the nascent market. Although things could change quickly, the opportunity is now Samsung's -- to lose or to keep.

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