In the weeks preceding January's reveal of the Sliding PC 7, more than 300 news items were posted about the 10.1-inch tablet computer, which touts a unique—and polarizing—slide-out keyboard. Today, "there's a very distinct split between people who are pro-Samsung and anti-Samsung," says Chris Davies, an editor at the tech blog SlashGear, "which feels very Apple."
A quarter of Samsung's revenue comes from semiconductors, bought by the likes of Dell, HP, and Microsoft, so it "has some shielding from the market," says Forrester analyst Charles Golvin. This also gives Samsung the freedom (and the cash) to toy with different technologies—Windows Phone 7, smartphones for Symbian, and Android OS, for instance—so when one of those takes off, it's ready with a top-of-the-line product.
The breadth of Samsung's ambition can be seen in the next-gen vending machines developed in partnership with Coca-Cola, which feature a giant, 46-inch touch-screen interface that can display ads and animations. More than 1,000 will start appearing stateside this year.
Back in 1994, Samsung's cell-phone quality was so poor that its CEO burned cheap models in a company bonfire. Today, it has the Galaxy S smartphone series, which touts state-of-the-art specs (1 GHz processor, 5-megapixel camera). It has sold more than 10 million units since its June debut and has helped edge Samsung closer to unseating Nokia as the world's top mobile-phone maker.
A careful focus on culture has helped Samsung in the home. For instance, Americans love tossing food into spacious refrigerators, while Germans want everything in bins. "Those small things are nearly impossible to catch, unless you're living in a country and breathing a culture," says Yoon Lee, whose California-based "product innovation team"—one of four worldwide—helps Korean engineers develop U.S.-friendly products.
To help Korean executives understand that U.S. consumers value simplified features—such as the NX100 camera's first-of-its-kind "i-Function," which allows users to adjust shutter speed and aperture directly from the lens—Lee showed them screenshots of Google's spare home page versus that of naver.com, Korea's top search site, which is cluttered with text. "By having that extreme contrast," he says, "they immediately get what we mean."