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4/26/2012
07:05 PM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Why Apple Will Never Equal Sony

Is Apple destined to decline, as Forrester's CEO has predicted? If so, it won't be due to the absence of Steve Jobs.

Predicting that Apple will decline in the post-Steve Jobs era, as Forrester CEO George Colony has done, is easy.

The company last year lost Steve Jobs, the charismatic leader that brought it to life in 1976 and then revived it when he returned 20 years later. The company's stock hit an all-time high April 9, so downward motion seems likely. And Apple's next billion-dollar market isn't obvious: Ping and iAd won't make Apple a player in social networking or advertising, and the TV market--where Apple is rumored to be making its next big product push--presents a problem that technology can't solve. TV is fractured by content licensing issues, not poor technology.

But Colony's analysis is based on the great man theory. He writes, "Apple's momentum will carry it for 24-48 months. But without the arrival of a new charismatic leader it will move from being a great company to being a good company, with a commensurate step down in revenue growth and product innovation. Like Sony (post Morita), Polaroid (post Land), Apple circa 1985 (post Jobs), and Disney (in the 20 years post Walt Disney), Apple will coast, and then decelerate."

[ What do we want in Apple's next mobile operating system? Read Apple iOS 6 Wishlist: 10 Features We Want. ]

Apple did not get where it is based solely on the charisma of Steve Jobs. Certainly Jobs contributed immensely to the company's success, but Apple is a technology company that makes hardware and software and it would not have succeeded if its products weren't well-suited to the needs of customers.

Apple's technology is why it isn't Sony. Apple owns a platform, or two actually: OS X and iOS. Sony just piggybacks on someone else's platform, Microsoft Windows. Platform relationships are deep: People tend to stick with the same platform for years. Product relationships are shallow: If you bought a Sony PC in 2009 and happen to be shopping for a replacement this year, you're probably considering PCs from companies in addition to Sony's Vaio laptop.

Platform owners have real advantages, which is why Apple and Microsoft have each been, and continue to be, dominant in the technology arena. Google built its company on open source to be free of the platform overlords and then, secure in its search ad empire, invested in Android and Chrome OS to join the platform overload's club.

Apple will never equal Sony because Sony bows to Microsoft. Sony relies on Microsoft for its software, or it fails to provide a coherent platform across products not tied to Windows. And its products have not been integrated into a self-reinforcing ecosystem, the way Apple's and Microsoft's products have been.

Nor is Apple like Polaroid. Polaroid failed because it could not make the transition from chemical photography to digital photography. The closest analogy for Apple would be the transition from the PC era to the mobile era, and Apple has handled that transition rather well. It is Microsoft, coasting on legacy desktop profits but facing dwindling mobile relevance, that appears to be playing the role of Polaroid at the moment.

Apple is also not like Disney. Disney is a media and theme park company. Making film and television is a tough business because hits are seldom a sure thing. The films Disney produced in the 1970s, after the death of founder Walt Disney, didn't do as well as the company's earlier hits, but the company recovered under the leadership of Michael Eisner and its annual revenues have continued to increase. Apple as a distributor of digital content doesn't take the same risks as a movie maker. It just collects its 30%.

But the two companies do have something in common: They both bought critical talent or technology from Steve Jobs during a time of need: Disney bought Pixar to save its animation business and Apple bought NeXT to save its technology business.

Apple's decline, if it comes, will not have to do with its leadership. It will have to do with lack of opportunity to apply its design expertise to enhance its technology platform. Even with Steve Jobs, Apple cannot survive without new markets to reinvent. That's because Apple wants to own it all, but cannot forever sustain its market share or margins in the face of dozens of competitors that copy Apple products. Apple succeeds when it can change the game. The thing is that such opportunities only come along every few years.

There will be opportunities--the Internet of Things comes to mind--but they may require Apple to change its ways. If Apple cannot adapt, then it surely will decline. But Apple's ability to adapt will not hinge on the charisma of a single leader.

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Sam Iam
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Sam Iam,
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4/28/2012 | 3:10:55 AM
re: Why Apple Will Never Equal Sony
True, Forrester's comparison of Apple to Sony does not make sense for the reasons you mentioned. Platform vs. no platform, diversified product line vs. streamlined.... Apple = operating system ecosystem company. Sony = hardware company. Microsoft is much more applicable than Sony.
YMOM100
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YMOM100,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/28/2012 | 1:26:33 PM
re: Why Apple Will Never Equal Sony
Disagreeing here, Microsoft is mainly a software company. The only piece of hardware that Microsoft sells well is the Xbox. Apple is predominantly a vendor of consumer products, they even dropped "Computer" from their company name. In that regards I find the comparison to Sony valid to some extent. The difference, and that may be key here, is that Apple has its own operating system to use. Sony does not have that.
sarfralogy
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sarfralogy,
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4/28/2012 | 8:18:00 PM
re: Why Apple Will Never Equal Sony
Apple owns a platform But the two companies do have something in common http://bit.ly/JPznbJ
MSURESH441
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MSURESH441,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2012 | 7:13:09 AM
re: Why Apple Will Never Equal Sony
25-30 years ago, I can remember reading almost exactly the same article about why Sony couldn't lose its leadership. During that time, I've seen this article written about companies in every industry.

I don't know that the Forrester guy is right-- many of the doomsayers aren't. But this is just puerile thinking. Every market leader can turn into a dinosaur
TreeInMyCube
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TreeInMyCube,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2012 | 3:43:02 PM
re: Why Apple Will Never Equal Sony
Definitely agree w/ Mr. Claburn's insight -- Apple needs a market to invent, or reinvent. It made significant advances in personal computers in the 1980s, and then faltered when they flirted with commoditization. They dominated personal music players, dominated smartphones, and invented the current tablet market. I don't see that an iFridge or an iCrib would be quite the same earth-shaking innovation as the iPhone. The global auto companies are already invested in iCar type innovations. Remember, it took was only 13 years ago that Microsoft was being handed a court judgement for monopolistic practices. Apple's decline may be at least 10 years in the future.
ANON1237925156805
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ANON1237925156805,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2012 | 7:24:31 PM
re: Why Apple Will Never Equal Sony
Apple isn't and will never be a monopoly in the way that Microsoft was for many reasons. Among them:

1) Apple doesn't have a monopolistic mindset, much as business and technology writers think that they should have one. They have a contrarian mindset. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Jobs admired Henry Clay's famous dictum: "I"d rather be right than president." Recall that Clay never became president. Some regard him as having been more prescient than many contemporaries but not all.

2) There are too many layers of technology now each with its own dominant player(s). PC's, smartphones/tablets, portables, PCs, e-readers, etailers, cloud providers, social networks, databases large and small and on and on and on.

3) Microsoft ruled the world when no one knew better. Today's decision makers at home and in the workplace include kids who grew up on PCs and the internet. They are not loyal to any one brand. They want the next new thing.

Apple may falter nonetheless; I'm guessing that they are most likely to falter if they fall in love with being dominant rather than being willing to succeed wildly from time to time with one product or another whilst being a respected player at all times.
Sam Iam
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Sam Iam,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/1/2012 | 8:21:36 AM
re: Why Apple Will Never Equal Sony
We will have to agree to disagree. I think the critical element of Apple, like Microsoft, is their platform(s) and the ecosystem built around those platforms. The platforms give them the "stickyness" factor which is why it has been so difficult to replace Microsoft Windows. If you want to replace a Sony tv, stereo or PC, you just replace it. If you want to replace Apple or Microsoft, you have to go through all the rigamarole of determining if your applications/services will be available on whatever you are moving to, adjust to a new OS GUI and functional layout, break integration points between devices and services provided by Apple. The hardware component of Apple is really only important so far as it gets people into their ecosystem. Sony has no ecosystem. The difference between Apple and Microsoft is that Microsoft has a B2B model as well as a B2C model. The B2B model just amplifies the "stickyness" factor as now you have people trained to administer Microsoft products, a greater level of investment in the products, infrastructures built around those products, etc. That is not to say that Apple or Microsoft can never be replaced, it is just much more difficult to replace an OS ecosystem than hardware. Apple is more in Microsoft's realm, or IBM would even be a more apt B2B comparison, whereas Sony would be closer to an HP model.
YMOM100
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YMOM100,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/1/2012 | 11:04:03 PM
re: Why Apple Will Never Equal Sony
That depends on how you look at things. You can ditch the iPhone and make calls or surf the web with an Android phone as well. You can throw out Windows and OS X and do office work with Linux. It is not the same, true, but goes along the same path as the Sony TV analogy. Or do you claim that there is no difference between a souped up Sony TV and one of these dinky boxes you can pick up at a gas station?
Andrew Hornback
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Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2012 | 12:40:48 AM
re: Why Apple Will Never Equal Sony
Wait a minute... Apple doesn't have a monopolistic mindset? Have you forgotten what they did to AT&T over the iPhone? And then Verizon as well?

Apple is a business, businesses thrive on making money and you make money by providing a product that people want (or can't live without, in the case of some Apple fans). To say that Apple is non-monopolistic is to claim that they actually want other organizations competing in their space - I don't recall ever hearing that from Apple.

As to the contrarian mindset - ever consider that that's marketing at work? You want to make the user/owner of your product feel unique, you do that by wrapping that product in a mystique that it's not like anything else out there. Look around at the iPhone, iPod, iPad and MacBook users - are these people really contrarian or are they simply purchasing the "must have" product because it's a "must have" ? It's amazing what a good marketing machine can do for your business...

With regards to dominant players in various spaces... PCs - Apple; smartphones - Apple; tablets - Apple; e-reader - Apple has an app for that... the idea of unifying everything under the same umbrella comes to mind.

Microsoft doesn't rule the world - but, when you look at OS installed base, they're THE major player. When you look at the technology stacks that Fortune 500 organizations use, again, Microsoft is a major player.

As an IT decision maker, I certainly beg to differ regarding your brand loyalty comment. I certainly have brands that I favor - but ultimately the decision to be made has to be the best possible fit for the organization. It also seems slightly twisted that you would bring a point like this into a discussion about Apple. How many people do you know of that only have one Apple product? Apple users are some of the most (fiercely) loyal users that I've ever encountered, bordering on rabid at times.

Any organization has the capacity to falter, most organizations have the capacity to succeed - it all depends on a plethora of factors, leadership being a key.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
Sam Iam
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Sam Iam,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2012 | 1:48:42 AM
re: Why Apple Will Never Equal Sony
If you were to ditch iPhone for Android, you would have to cancel your contract, ensure that the applications you use (iTunes, Facetime, iCloud, Apple's App Store, third-party apps) are available on Android... many of them are not. You would have to transfer your bookmarks, locations, pictures, files, e-mail, calendar, etc. You would have to adjust to the new UI, app locations, etc. If you were to replace your Sony 42' TV with a Samsung 42' TV, you just unplug one and plug in the other. There is no ecosystem, learning curve, apps and content left behind, etc. That is not to say that it is impossible, or even all that difficult, to migrate from iPhone to Android or Mac to Windows or vice versa. There are just more hassles which act as competitive barriers to replacement. It is the same reason your bank wants you to link a bunch of accounts to your checking account. It makes it is hassle to change bank services.
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