Last summer, health-care startup Preventice asked Samsung Electronics if it would create a custom version of its popular Galaxy S II phone. Preventice was putting the finishing touches on a product that used a smartphone to transmit data from a patient’s heart monitor to a doctor, and it needed Samsung to disable downloads, which might interfere with a cellular connection. In less than six weeks Samsung made the necessary changes and agreed to pick up roughly $40,000 in engineering costs. “I saw a huge company with huge resources move very quickly,” says Preventice Chief Executive Officer Jon Otterstatter. “Samsung was very aggressive.”
Samsung’s mobile-electronics empire was built mostly on consumers. Now it’s making its first big push to woo companies. This so-called enterprise market includes companies that distribute smartphones and tablets to employees, who use them for checking e-mail and tasks such as tracking sales, as well as companies like Preventice that want to resell the devices as part of their own products. “We’ve made the decision to be No. 1 in enterprise,” says Timothy Wagner, who runs the Texas-based Samsung unit that’s leading the effort.
Few think that’s likely to happen unless Apple (AAPL), which has already made a strong move into the enterprise market, slips up. Thanks to the popularity of the iPhone and iPad with professionals, Apple passed fast-fading Research In Motion (RIMM) to become the top seller of company-issued smartphones this year and will remain in that position at least through 2016, says IDC analyst Stacy Crook. With its small number of products and carefully policed App Store, Apple has made itself safe in the eyes of chief information officers. In its last quarter earnings call on Oct. 25, CEO Tim Cook said more than 80 percent of large companies are at least testing iPhones and iPads for employee use.
Still, Samsung does have an opportunity. While Wagner is aware how difficult it will be to get businesspeople to ditch their iPhones, he says there’s plenty of new business to be had from companies that need something beyond Apple’s one-size-fits-all formula. Apple doesn’t customize its products for anyone, or partner with third-party software makers to target specific industries. Samsung will, Wagner says. “We’re in a unique position to take advantage of an opening that’s being left there by one of our competitors,” he says. Apple spokesperson Natalie Harrison declined to comment on the company’s enterprise business.
IDC’s Crook says the timing of Samsung’s offensive will allow the company to take advantage of BlackBerry’s problems (according to IDC, RIM’s global smartphone market share has dropped from 19.9 percent in 2009 to 4.7 percent this year). Microsoft (MSFT), she notes, has yet to make inroads with its Windows Phone 8 software, introduced in October.
Samsung, which dominates the booming market for devices built on Google’s (GOOG) Android operating system, also could distance itself from other Android rivals in the enterprise market. Its push comes as HTC is struggling and Google focuses elsewhere. In early December, Google closed what was left of 3LM, a mobile enterprise software maker that was acquired by Motorola Mobility in 2011, months before Google bought Motorola. “The fact that Google is shuttering 3LM shows that they’re very focused on the consumer space—but they’re not realizing that consumer devices are being used in enterprise,” says Chris Hazelton, an analyst with 451 Research. “It seems incredibly shortsighted.” Google declined to comment.
Part of Wagner’s strategy for Samsung is to find ways to lower companies’ mobile-computing costs. Many corporations buy smart devices for their employees, but increasingly employees are buying their own and getting reimbursed for a portion of the cost of their data and voice plans. Wagner says Samsung is developing docking stations that would let employees rely on their smartphones’ processing power for their work, eliminating the need for companies to buy them a deskphone or laptop. “As soon as you walk in the room with your phone in your pocket, your monitor, keyboard, and mouse will light up,” Wagner predicts.
Samsung needs to persuade more CIOs to give Android a chance. According to IDC, roughly half of the 125 million iPhones sold by Apple in 2012 were used to run corporate applications, compared with only about 20 percent of Android phones. The biggest obstacle for Samsung is that every Android phone manufacturer uses a slightly different version of the operating system. That means info-tech shops must spend time and money testing each for malware.
With Google showing little desire to solve this problem, Wagner’s team has created a collection of security and management software called SAFE (Samsung for Enterprise) that he says will make all Samsung devices operate the same way. American Airlines is giving Samsung’s Galaxy Note II, a tablet/telephone hybrid, to 17,000 of its flight attendants, who will use it to process payments for onboard purchases of drinks and movies. “The Note was much more enterprise-ready” than other Android devices, says American Airlines CIO Maya Leibman. SAFE lets American disable the device’s camera to protect passengers’ privacy but leaves enough imaging capability to scan bar codes.
Wagner won’t reveal his group’s enterprise sales, but SAFE impressed Samsung’s brass enough that the company will install SAFE products available in Canada, Europe, and South Korea. The company says it’s adding hundreds of new corporate clients each quarter and has recently launched its first corporate-focused ad campaign, with airport ads promising “The Next Big Thing in Business.”
“Some of our partners are calling it Sam-droid,” says Kenneth Daniels, senior director of strategy alliances. “I like that.” Still, Samsung has far to go to prove itself a bona fide corporate power. “They are newbies in the enterprise game,” says Forrester Research (FORR) analyst Frank Gillett. The company is known for high-volume manufacturing efficiency, not for the software expertise and customer support big companies expect. It also has work to do in getting the word out about its new initiatives, says Matt Wallach, co-founder of Veeva Systems, a maker of software for pharmaceutical salespeople. “I asked around,” he says, “and nobody here has even heard of SAFE.”