Technology First Movers do not Market Leaders Make

It feels a bit unfair to pick on one author for mistakes that so many technology writers are making all the time, but this particular article in Forbes is such a great example of the problem that it is impossible for me to resist.

The gist of the article is that Apple hardware is falling behind. The company is “under pressure” and will soon be “feeling the heat” from new technologies like Samsung’s foldable display. This argument is flawed on several levels.

1. The Many Faces of Samsung

There is not one “Samsung”. The Samsung division that makes display technologies is separate from and largely independent of the division that makes phones. The former will happily sell whatever they can to Apple, including fancy new flexible display technology.

In fact, you can bet that if their flexible displays are close to production-ready, then Samsung’s display technology team is actively trying to sell Apple on incorporating the technology into future iOS products. After all, there may be gazillions of Android phones being activated every day, but there is no single purchaser of specific component SKUs larger than Apple.

2. First Movers Take One for the Industry

History teaches us that being the first to use a new technology is hardly a guarantee of success. In fact, in the case of a technology that makes fundamental changes to user experience it is much more likely to end badly for the first mover. Apple was nowhere near the first company to make a phone with a touch display. It was the first to do it right.

Understanding this point is one of Apple’s strengths, having learned hard lessons from products like the Newton. So there is zero anxiety in Cupertino about Samsung’s phone team beating them to the punch with a foldable display. More likely, having hosted the Samsung foldable display sales team in Cupertino, Apple’s team has concluded that the technology is interesting and something to watch, but still way too risky to be incorporated into the iPhone or iPad. Besides, they can wait for other products come to market with this novelty and observe how consumers react. They can wait for the hardware technology to reach maturity, because you can bet that the first few generations will be far from consumer-ready.

3. Remember the Software

One common misconception about a technology like a foldable display is that the hard part is done once you have figured out how to make a display that is flexible. But that is only the beginning. A flexible display is a fundamental change. Until now, ALL computer and device screens have been hard, flat surfaces. All user interface design assumes that they are hard, flat surfaces. When this changes, the user experience implications are probably as extreme as they were for moving from punch cards to keyboards, or from keyboard only to keyboard plus mouse, or from physical keys to touch screens.

What often happens with new, game changer hardware technologies is that the first-to-market products combine the new technology with the old software user interface. So if we do see Samsung phones with foldable screens, the software UI will probably look almost identical to phones that have normal screens. It is only later when the user experience design is rethought from the ground up for a flexible display that the potential will truly be realized. And when this happens, it is very likely that a vertically integrated player, with their end-to-end control of hardware and software, will do it.

Samsung and software? Samsung and User Experience? Not so much.

Flexible displays will probably be big. First movers will initially generate some buzz, and later be ridiculed as the first products fail to meet expectations. At some point, perhaps a lot later when flexible displays are a forgotten technology, other companies will bring products to market that set reasonable expectations and meet them with delightful user experiences. These companies will get history’s credit for being first to market.