Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) Sept. 9 event was certainly significant -- the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus appear to be fantastic phones, and both should sell exceedingly well in the coming quarters. Perhaps more significant, Apple Watch is a completely new product category, one that could emerge as a major source of revenue growth in the years to come.
But, in terms of innovation, Apple fell short of its South Korean rival, Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF). Earlier this month, at IFA 2014, Samsung unveiled three new products of its own -- ones that are far more revolutionary in scope than Apple's new devices.
That innovation comes at a cost -- the success of Samsung's new products is much more uncertain. But in terms of pushing the mobile envelope, Samsung appears to be pulling ahead.
The Gear VR, Gear S, and Note IV Edge
The centerpiece of Samsung's IFA 2014 show was the Galaxy Note 4 -- the next iteration of its popular, flagship phablet. Given the relative success of its prior models (the Galaxy Note 3 shipped more than 10 million units in just two months), the Note 4 should be expected to sell millions. More interesting than the Note 4 itself, however, was a unique accessory that could be paired with the device -- the Galaxy VR.
Owners of the Note 4 can, if they purchase Samsung's Gear VR, use their phone as a virtual reality headset. Right now, there isn't much content for the Gear VR, and the experience it offers isn't as good as PC-dependent alternatives, but early reactions have generally been positive. Most importantly, the Gear VR is unique -- no other handset currently offers anything like it.
In addition to the Gear VR, Samsung also unveiled a second version of the Note 4: the Galaxy Note 4 Edge. As its name implies, the Note 4 Edge is distinguished by its unique, curved screen -- Samsung has built a separate, second display into the phone's right side. Like the Gear VR, there isn't much content (yet) to take advantage of Samsung's hardware innovation, but the Note 4 Edge is unlike anything else out there.
Samsung's third product was the Gear S -- a smartwatch that has a built-in 3G modem. Unlike nearly every other smartwatch on the market (including the upcoming Apple Watch) the Gear S does not require a tethered phone. The Gear S is large, and may be too bulky to attract mass-market adoption, but Samsung has created the first watch that responds to perhaps the biggest criticism leveled at smartwatches to date -- that they are mere extensions of a user's smartphone.
Apple offers little that hasn't been seen before
In contrast, Apple showed off a number of products that, while much more likely to succeed, are far from revolutionary.
The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus are a welcome addition to Apple's iPhone lineup, but Samsung (and others) have been offering phones with larger screens for years. ApplePay, Apple's new mobile payment system, doesn't differ notably from other, NFC-dependent mobile payment systems (like Softcard) that have come before it.
Apple Watch is certainly new, but again, is something that has been seen before. The interface is an improvement, and the device itself is more attractive, but the features it's built around -- smartphone notifications, a heart rate monitor, voice control, third-party apps -- were present on Samsung's first-generation Gear.
Apple leads, Samsung follows?
Observers may be tempted to write-off Samsung's somewhat wacky new products as doomed to failure. Certainly, they could fail -- but they could also be wildly successful, perhaps even going as far as to define a new standard for the entire industry.
It's important to remember that Samsung's original Galaxy Note was almost universally mocked when it was first unveiled at IFA 2011. That phone, with its 5.3-inch screen (relatively tame by today's standards) was characterized as absurdly large -- a high tech circus prop, unlikely to gain much traction.
And yet, just three years later, Apple has followed suit. If it wasn't for Samsung's original Note proving that a market for large phones existed, it seems quite likely that Apple never would've released the iPhone 6 Plus in the first place. The standard iPhone 6 may also have been smaller, as Apple's management had previously, on multiple occasions, characterized the iPhone 5's 4-inch screen as the perfect size.
In terms of sales, both new iPhones and Apple Watch seem more likely to succeed than any of Samsung's new gadgets. But the often popular narrative -- that Apple leads and Samsung follows -- is looking increasingly outdated.
Sam Mattera has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.