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.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

April 26, 2012

4 Min Read

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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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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