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Samsung sends spies to uncover Apple's iPhone line phenom

The Korean electronics giant may use ads to mock fanboys waiting for the iPhone, but that doesn't mean it's not curious about why Apple buyers will sit in line for eons for the device.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
4 min read
An Apple videographer cheers with Brian Ceballo, the first person to get his hands on the iPhone 5S at Apple's Fifth Avenue store in New York. Sarah Tew/CNET
NEW YORK -- You can't have an ad campaign mocking people waiting in line for the iPhone and then wish you had the same lines. Or can you?

Apparently Samsung thinks it can. Along with the hundreds of consumers, reporters, and app promoters converging Friday on Apple's flagship store on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue for the iPhone 5S/5C launch were employees from the Korean giant.

Smartphone companies often check out the competition, either quietly or in a very public way. During Samsung's Galaxy S4 event in March in New York, for example, HTC hired people to promote its brand outside the venue. Woman decked out in HTC gear touted the benefits of that company's devices over those from Samsung while handing out snacks to reporters waiting in line.

In the case of the iPhone launch Friday, however, Samsung kept its presence pretty clandestine. It didn't hand out fliers or post advertising or display anything identifying itself as Samsung. It didn't even talk to anyone in line. Rather, a Korean video and photography crew documented the scene and interviewed reporters to figure out why Apple has such a rabid following.

The videographers asked questions such as, "Is the line shorter or longer this year than last?" and "Is the crowd more excited or less than previous years?" All questions revolved around whether Apple seemed to be losing a bit of its cool factor or if the company's fans remained as loyal as ever.

"Other companies release new phones, but there's not as much passion and heat [from buyers]," a Korea-based producer from Samsung Broadcasting Center/Cheil Worldwide, who asked not to be named, told CNET at the iPhone launch. "It's only Apple. Why? We're curious."

Hundreds of people await the iPhone 5S and 5C launch at Apple's Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan. Sarah Tew/CNET
The video group came from the Samsung Broadcasting Center/Cheil Worldwide, not from the electronics arm. Samsung is best known for its phones and TVs, but its parent company -- Samsung Group -- also owns operations in everything from shipbuilding to clothing. Cheil is a Korea-based Samsung Group company focused on marketing and communications. It works with Samsung Electronics on campaigns from time the time.

The Samsung Broadcasting Center, a part of Cheil Worldwide, produces internal TV programs aimed at training Samsung employees by introducing the world's latest trends.

The producer at the event noted that the information the video crew gathered would only be distributed internally and that Samsung specifically chose the Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan because of its size and the amount of hype surrounding the store. The person said Samsung wasn't doing similar observations at any other stores.

A Cheil public relations manager told CNET on Sunday that the video team was in New York to interview a Maker Faire executive and that the team members dropped by the Apple store because they happened to be in the neighborhood.

"It's not that they documented the scene for a specific purpose -- rather, they just took casual shots out of curiosity," the representative said via e-mail. "Their visit to the Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan had nothing to do with Samsung Electronics or its business."

A US-based Samsung representative declined to comment.

When it comes to smartphones, Apple and Samsung are the only two companies that make any money. Together, they ship more than 40 percent of the world's smartphones, and they generate the vast majority of the buzz. Their rivalry has been fierce in the market and in the courtroom, with Apple and Samsung clashing over everything from patents to phones. Apple may have popularized the touchscreen smartphone category, but Samsung now dominates the segment, shipping more than double the numbers of devices as Apple.

Even though Samsung sells more devices than Apple, it doesn't generate the same lines at its product launches. Its Unpacked event to unveil the Galaxy S4 in March drew thousands of people, but lines didn't stretch around the block to actually buy the device in stores. As the company tries to become a bigger brand and control an even larger chunk of the market, it's important for Samsung to develop a loyal user base like that of Apple.

Samsung has been building more buzz around its brand by releasing ads mocking Apple fanboys, particularly those who wait in line for the newest devices. One TV ad, released around the time of last year's iPhone 5 launch, made fun of Apple's earliest adopters who wait in line for hours.

The tag line for that campaign was "the next big thing is already here."

iPhone 5C and 5S hit the streets worldwide (pictures)

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Updated Sept. 22 at 9:45 a.m. PT with comment from Cheil Worldwide.