Can Samsung become Apple?
I don’t know about you, but I found myself personally affected by Steve Jobs’ recent passing. I never met the man, or even saw him in person, so I can’t claim to have any personal connection with him.
Judging by the reaction, millions of others throughout the world apparently share my sadness. So, what was it about the man that left total strangers ― most of us his customers who paid a lot of money to buy his products ― grieving? I mean, you don’t usually become affected by the death of your insurance agent or drycleaner.
My own reaction surprised me, so I reviewed all the times that I had felt similarly sad over the passing of a relative stranger and found something curious; I had felt similar emotions when I had heard that Rev. Kang Won-yong had passed. And Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan. And Ven. Beop Jeong. In short, a religious leader who had managed to rise beyond his or her own religion and really become a unifying figure known for wisdom and compassion.
Does that mean I considered Steve Jobs, unbeknownst to my consciousness, as a spiritual teacher?
I am not sure that I looked to Steve Jobs for spiritual guidance, but I can’t deny that he had a significant effect on how I interfaced with the world. Starting with the revolutionary cute box and mouse, Macintosh, he affected how I thought about computers.
Then came the object-based computing that he pioneered with NEXT. It was the first time that I saw that you could build computer programs much like LEGO. You just stuck different parts onto one another. Seeing it was one of those moments that you suddenly find yourself waking up when you thought you had been awake all this time.
Then Steve gave you the iPod, iPhone, and iPad in quick succession, once again totally transforming how we interact with computers. More importantly, he changed how we behave with each other. In other words, Steve Jobs’ machines totally transformed how we form and manage relationships with our family and friends.
Steve Jobs may not have been my spiritual teacher, but he did affect me in a very profound way; he influenced how I experienced the world, both physically and mentally. He had single-handedly shifted the paradigm of human experience. No wonder I felt sad.
Then an interesting question came to me. Would I feel just as sad if I found out that Lee Kun-hee, the chairman of Samsung, had passed away? I have to be honest; it wouldn’t even be close.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not wishing ill on anyone. In fact, I greatly admire Lee for his vision and risk-taking; his leadership was the single most important factor that made Samsung into a household name across the world today.
However, Samsung is not yet an icon. It’s an excellent company with a sterling reputation and world’s best products. But it’s not an Apple.
Granted, not too many companies are Apple. But I am not talking about those companies. I am talking about Samsung, the flagship company of the Korean Miracle. If Samsung can’t become Apple, who can? But for Samsung to become Apple, it needs to make a product that can redefine how we interact with the world and one another, much like iPhone has done. Improving on existing products is not enough to attain icon status.
But, once again, easier said than done. If it was that easy to produce an iPhone, or even a Walkman, then Samsung would have done it already. So, what would it take?
It would take for Lee Kun-hee to become a Steve Jobs. I don’t mean that Lee has to suddenly start wearing black turtlenecks and jeans. But Lee does need to channel that part of Jobs’ leadership that allowed innovative and creative ideas to percolate to the top and encouraged his people to think revolution, not evolution. Lee must lead a crusade against a default Korean corporate culture where the incentive system heavily favors safe choices as opposed to risky ones.
The current patent battle with Apple is a case in point. I don’t really know, or even care, who is legally right. All I know is that, before iPhone and iPad, no one came up with that unique combination of functionalities, interface, and software that made these products so world-changing. For a typical consumer like me, everyone else in the world that came up with a smartphone after the iPhone is a copycat. Perhaps not legally, but certainly in spirit.
And it’s the spirit that counts when you want to drive people to re-imagine the world: an original, indomitable spirit that demands creative eccentricity from yourself and your people. If Lee can infuse his company with that spirit, then Samsung would be the next Apple.
Jason Lim is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant in organizational leadership, culture, and change management. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook.com/jasonlim2000.