Spin control: Apple goes on offense against Android

On the eve of Samsung's big Galaxy S4 launch, Apple's marketing head decides that it's time to talk trash. Expect more of the same for 2013.

Apple Senior Vice President of Worldwide product marketing Phil Schiller Getty Images
If he were the marketing chief for any company other than Apple, people would rightly figure that Phil Schiller's public bashing of Android was just part of the job description. And yes, there's that. But context is everything and Schiller's recent media offensive is part of a much bigger story with higher-than-normal stakes.

Schiller started the trash talking last week with a random tweet urging people to "Be safe out there" with a link to a report from F-Secure focusing on Android mobile security threats.

Then, on the eve of Samsung's Galaxy S4 announcement, Schiller sought out Reuters and The Wall Street Journal , to dis Android as "fragmented" and suggest that Android users were left far less satisfied than owners of Apple's smartphone.

"At Apple we know that it's not just enough to have products pumped out in large numbers," Schiller said. "You have to love and use them. There is a lot of data showing a big disparity there."

Normally, this sort of stuff is about as interesting as the spots on a leopard's rear end. Tech companies have been smacking around competitors since the dawn of the PC industry. In the mid-1980s, for instance, the head of software maker Borland had his minions slip copies of a negative magazine article about his opposite number at Lotus under the hotel room doors of executives attending the DEMO conference. That was a bit extreme, but in the following years the sight of CEOs taking verbal potshots at each other became quite common. Scott McNealy and Larry Ellison rarely passed a chance to get on a podium to take a poke at Bill Gates. And Steve Jobs himself famously said that Microsoft had no taste."

But this has not been Apple's modus operandi under CEO Tim Cook. Yes, the company's execs make a point of publicly drooling over their wonderful and great and amazing products when the cameras start rolling. And he made fun of Microsoft's Surface during an earnings conference call last fall. However, it's rare to catch anyone in a position of authority bluntly talking down the competition anymore. Until recently, that is, when all the enthusiasm -- not to mention investor dollars -- has gone to rivals Google and Samsung. Suddenly, a defensive Apple has been playing offense. Even its usually hands-off PR department has been uncharacteristically pushing out news releases and third-party studies to reporters.

For so long, Apple didn't even need to acknowledge the rest of the industry. Apple has enjoyed a charmed existence, even after losing its legendary co-founder. But that began to change last fall as Apple's shares retreated after surpassing the $700 mark, and doubts surfaced about the iPhone and iPad maker being able to sustain its monster profit margins, and steady release of disruptive products. The doubts got reflected in a steady months-long plummet in Apple's stock price, which closed today at $432.15, and that's now got everyone offering Cook pointers on how to better manage his company.

The better question then to ask about Schiller is why he took this long to exit the Cupertino Fortress of Solitude and mix it up. Based upon the latest research out of IDC, Android owned 70.1 percent of the smartphone OS market in the fourth quarter. Apple's iOS was a distant second with just 21 percent in the fourth quarter and 18.8 percent on an annual basis, according to IDC.

Meanwhile, everything seems to be falling in Samsung's favor -- including a recent court order slashing the amount of damages it was slated to fork over to Apple as a result of last year's jury verdict. The company's swagger is such that Samsung officials now talk confidently about shipping 10 million Galaxy S4 smartphones a month.
Samsung's JK Shin, the head of Mobile Communications shows off the Galaxy S4.
Samsung's JK Shin, the head of Mobile Communications shows off the Galaxy S4. Sarah Tew/CNET

And at first blush, the introduction of the GalaxyS4 lived up to the advance billing with some compelling features sure to put added pressure on Apple with a supersized 5-inch screen and a boatload of new features that my CNET colleague Jessica Dolcourt writes "raises the bar again for Samsung's competitors" -- especially the one based in Cupertino, Calif.

Of course this being Apple, the ups and downs in its fortunes are always exaggerated. Goes with the territory since we're talking about one of the iconic companies of our time. And all it will take is one more disruptive product to reverse the sentiment. But the Samsung/Android challenge is getting more formidable all the time, and setting Schiller loose won't change anything other than grab a few headlines. But with billions of dollars on the line, don't be surprised to expect more spin over the course of the year.

 

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