Apple's best offense is a good defense

Why Apple's recent "defensive" showing may more tactical than meets the eye.

March 18, 2013
Jonathan Libov

The web is abuzz with Apple's recent "defensive" stance against Samsung. Here's what came out of Apple in the days surrounding the launch of the Galaxy S4:

Since the launch of the iPod, Apple's marketing has been so well received by consumers and pundits alike because it appears so effortless. You can call this sprezzatura, "a combination of elan and grace and class, sort of the opposite of loud grunts while you play tennis". These recent marketing tactics by Apple are not "sprezzatura". They're deliberate, noisemaking, and fussy.

Some in the tech press have identified this as a shift. From "Apple's Forward Stance" by John Biggs on TechCrunch:

The fact that Apple is ready to fight at all — albeit the the same cold calculation as they usually express in their advertising — is important...I think the company under Tim Cook still has a lot of tricks left and getting into fighting stance is just the first one.

I agree about the readiness to fight, but let's tease apart what it means to "defensive". "Defensive" implies being caught off-guard, or acting artlessly in the absence of deliberation. Boxers behave defensively when they know they're not just losing the round but starting to lose the fight - at this point you'll see them abandon their pre-fight strategy and start to flail in the hopes of landing a big one. In reality their recklessness is opening themselves up to be hit with a big one.

This is not Apple. I give Phil Schiller too much credit to think that the WSJ interview was done hastily, that he would misjudge how this tactic would be perceived, or that he's just flailing. Call me a believer, but I suspect there's an endgame. If Schiller's got his gloves up protecting his body, it's possible that he, and Apple, have an idea of how Samsung will react. And maybe it's a reaction — Samsung doubling down by forking Android for themselves, or raising the volume on the brand of "tone-deaf, sexist marketing" we saw at the Galaxy S4 launch event — that Apple would relish.

If anyone would know how Samsung would react to Apple, it would be Apple. After all, serving as the template for Samsung's copycatting should still leave Apple one move ahead. While I'd be vastly overreaching to argue that there's a rope-a-dope strategy at play, I simply have trouble underestimating Schiller and Apple's level of deliberation.