Samsung Rising details the battle between Galaxy and iPhone [Book review]

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Samsung Rising tells how Apple pushed Samsung to be No. 1.
How Apple pushed Samsung to be No. 1.
Photo: Samsung Rising

New book Samsung Rising tells the story of Apple’s biggest rival in the smartphone era. It chronicles Samsung’s decades-long ascent, and the fierce competition between the South Korean tech giant’s Galaxy smartphones and the iPhone.

Smartly written and reported by veteran journalist Geoffrey Cain, Samsung Rising will certainly keep your brain active and your fingers flipping pages.

Samsung Rising review

Samsung Rising, published Tuesday by Current, delivers a dose of culture shock that you don’t normally find when reading about Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies. Sure, there’s a cultural divide between California companies like Apple and Google. But it’s nowhere near the size of the geographic and cultural chasm that exists between Samsung and Apple, as Cain elucidates in his well-researched and compelling new book.

Samsung is, readers learn, huge. Not just in the way that Western tech giants are huge, either. Samsung is the pride of its nation. Growing from a dried fish retailer in the 1930s into a diversified company that produces everything from smartphones and laptops to televisions and washing machines, it’s a corporate success story on another level.

The company is almost inconceivably large. It’s also tied to South Korea’s national identity in a way that very few companies are. In fact, some people in South Korea refer to their country as the Republic of Samsung.

Samsung Rising gives an insider’s look

This would be an extremely difficult book for someone to write without first-hand knowledge of life and culture in South Korea. Cain spent considerable time there, living in the country from 2009 to 2016, and reporting on Samsung since 2011.

In most cases, he’s visited the places he talks about. He’s chatted with the locals and, often, met the executives he discusses. He therefore brings a level of insider understanding and context that most Westerners lack — even if they’ve followed the Samsung story regularly over the past decade.

The first half of Cain’s informative book tells the story of Samsung’s journey from humble beginnings to its poor reputation as a maker of cut-rate electronics in the 1980s, and on to its transformation into the Samsung we know today. This section might seem long if you’re only interested in the Apple-related parts of the story. But it’s vital for gaining a sense of what kind of company Samsung is today — and why it makes the decisions that it does.

Cain possesses a novelist’s eye for detail, and his snappy writing and thorough research mean this historical half of the book never drags. Cain even includes a brief anecdote about Steve Jobs’ first visit to South Korea, way back in 1983.

Where does Apple fit in?

The second half of Samsung Rising delves into the Apple vs. Samsung legal battle and the race to become the world’s No. 1 smartphone manufacturer. Cain clearly views Apple as playing a big part in this story. The cover of the U.S. edition of the book shows Apple’s logo looming large in the background.

Using Apple to sell a book about Samsung seems, on the face of it, something of a cheap ploy. Heck, borrowing Apple’s IP to sell a Samsung product sounds like something Samsung itself would do. But, by the time we get to the part of the book about the Galaxy vs. iPhone confrontation, Cain makes a strong case for Apple’s centrality to the story. Apple, he writes, served as the big target for Samsung to go after. It played the same role for Samsung that IBM did for Apple in the 1980s.

In one of Samsung’s many, many attempts to make Apple into a big, figurative enemy, it ordered massive truckloads of apples shipped into its various offices. Samsung employees could literally take a bite out of their sworn rival.

The part of the book dealing with the Galaxy vs. iPhone is Samsung Rising at its most compelling. Samsung wanted to turn a battle between Apple and an electronics company with a bad reputation into the Pepsi vs. Coke of the new generation. And, to some extent, it succeeded. The story of how Samsung pulled off that feat, and the legal and technological battles that ensued, is never less than fascinating.

Samsung Rising earns Cult of Mac’s recommendation

Cain also does a great job telling the story of the disastrous Galaxy Note 7 launch. When Samsung’s flagship product went explosively wrong, it generated tons of damning headlines. The fact that Cain manages to mine the Note 7 fiasco for new anecdotes is impressive.

His even-handed book is no Samsung apologist’s version of the story. Nor was the book written by a Samsung hater. Throughout, Samsung Rising proves level-headed and objective. Cain praises Samsung when it deserves it, but also dishes the dirt when there’s cause for controversy. And there’s a lot of controversy.

In all, Samsung Rising is a great book. Based on interviews with 400 current and former Samsung employees and experts, the book comes loaded with insights. Those only interested in Apple might prefer a deeper focus on Cupertino’s inner workings and strategies. For everyone else, if you want to fill in a corner of your understanding of the tech world, or better understand one of the world’s most powerful companies, this is an endlessly compelling — and impressively up-to-date — read.

List price: $29

Buy from: Amazon