Samsung phones scattered on table

Book review: ‘Samsung Rising’ by Geoffrey Cain

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The inside story of the South Korean giant that set out to beat Apple and conquer the tech world.

It may be called ‘Samsung Rising’, but journalist Geoffrey Cain’s entertaining gallop through the history of South Korea’s iconic conglomerate (Virgin Books, £14.99, ISBN  9780753554814) largely plots its course from fall to fall. The notorious 2016 incident of the unhelpfully flammable Galaxy Note 7 makes for a lively opener and we rapidly descend into corruption, court cases, suspicious exonerations and sex scandals.

Amongst the juice, though, it’s the history that is most enlightening as to how the modest vegetable shop to which Samsung first gave its name was able to diversify and protect its fortunes through two major wars. Its strategy was to stay nimble and plug itself into every source of power and influence in a nation brought to its knees.

Such ambition is revealed to be a double-edged sword: not only does it engender a fierce national pride in the ‘Republic of Samsung’, it also exposes the company to the dark political manoeuvring far beyond the standard forces of commerce.

To this day, Cain reports, if electronics stocks fall by 70 per cent, the South Korean insurance industry would melt down; unemployment would rise by over 7 per cent; pensions would collapse, bringing with them corporate tax and putting South Korea’s major banks at risk of insolvency. “It’s called the 'Samsung Risk'.”

As it happens, this profound national vested interest is what came to differentiate Samsung from its flightier American adversaries when commercial electronics came of age.

It seems not so much a weakness as an editorial choice in this book to pursue the business side of Samsung, rather than the technological innovation: for example, the “obscure world of lithium-ion battery engineering” is gestured towards at one point.

Instead, we get anecdotes from the kind of business Vogons everyone loves to hate: Chairman Lee Kun-hee’s eight-hour non-stop harangue of colleagues in his business philosophy of “perpetual crisis”; mobile CEO Lee Ki-tae’s creatively icy conundrum for one beleaguered subordinate (“You can get on the corporate jet if you think you’ve done your job”).

It's a long way from selling vegetables.

The real reason for this book, of course, is not to offer a history of Samsung, but to chart the conflict generated when the company made landfall in the US and attempted to replace ailing Japanese-owned Sony in the affections of the American tech industry.

The story of how Apple and Samsung managed to get into each other’s pockets is already well known – the latter being exclusive chipmaker to the former – but the book is more revealing when it looks at Samsung’s efforts to adopt Western business approaches to beat Apple at its own game.

When whizz-kid designer Todd Pendleton was hired to rebrand Samsung, his demonstrable success was met with distrust by his new bosses, who deemed his “instinct to make fun of Apple... nothing short of dangerous.”

It is, on the whole, rather depressing that Samsung’s key achievement as presented here is the famous Ellen DeGeneres selfie, snapped at the 2014 Oscars ceremony by Samsung-schmoozed Bradley Cooper on his Galaxy Note 3. It branded the Galaxy in the minds of the consumer and that was that.

There’s the crux of it: if this is the peak of Samsung’s rise, it’s not the hardware or technology that’s being celebrated, it’s what it looks like on the shelf. Not so much difference, then, between vegetables and Apples.

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