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Samsung looks to life beyond the smartphone

SEOUL--After years of record profit growth, tech giant Samsung Electronics looks to be at a commercial crossroads as it searches for a new growth driver to counter slowing sales of its phenomenally successful smartphones.

Alarm bells have been sounding for a while over Samsung's reliance on smartphone sales in increasingly mature markets such as Europe and the United States, and increasingly competitive emerging markets like China.

The world's largest smartphone maker has a diverse product line ranging from memory chips to home appliances, but more than half its profits are generated by mobile devices.

Last week, Samsung said it was on track for a second consecutive quarter of year-on-year profit decline, and its stock price fell nearly 10 percent in 2013 — the first annual drop in five years.

Friday saw the global roll-out of the latest version of the flagship Galaxy series smartphone, the S5, whose performance will be closely watched.

While reviews have rated the S5 a top-class product, they note that it offers little in the way of real innovation that would set it apart from previous versions and models offered by competitors such as Apple.

“I think the market really needs a new growth driver at this point,” said Lee Min-Hee, an analyst at IM Investment and Securities, noting that the high-end smartphone market “is already saturated.”

“So it's inevitable to shift to mid-and low-end markets where margins are tighter and competition is even more fierce,” he said.

“Samsung did well this year on cutting costs — including marketing spending, but these are only defensive measures to make up for slowing sales and to maintain profits, not a proactive move to innovate.”

Lee noted that Samsung and South Korea's other export powerhouses are also feeling some strain from the strength of the won currency, which last week hit its highest point against the dollar since August 2008.

Samsung said sharp currency swings cost it 700 billion won (US$676 million) of lost revenue in the fourth quarter of 2013, when its operating profit came to 8.3 trillion won — a 6.0 percent decline on the previous year.

And there appears to be a general consensus that smartphone evolution has hit a barrier that will only allow incremental improvements on existing design and technology, rather than market-changing re-invention.

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A woman uses headphones at Samsung Galaxy Experience during the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival 2014 on Thursday, April 11 in Indio, California.

(AFP)

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