9/15/2011 | 2 MINUTE READ

Apple, Sony & Detroit

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When developing a product, don’t worry about what other parts of your company is doing: Customers don’t care.


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A colleague and I here at AD&P HQ sometimes get into a spirited discussion about music. About which generation gets to “claim” a band as its own. My position is that if a band has members that are approximately my age, I can claim it. His position (he’s younger) is that if a band’s primary success (i.e., sales) occurred during his heyday, he gets to claim them.

Steve Jobs is approximately my age. So as in the case of, say, Elvis Costello, I claim Jobs for my generation. And over the years, from the days of Apple Computer to simply Apple, there have been more than a few products from that company in my household. So I claim Apple.

That said, I—probably like Steve Jobs—once proudly owned Sony products, too. The Walkman was an aural revelation.I remember sticking headphones on my then late-middleaged boss and saying “Listen to this!” as I cranked up the volume on a King Crimson cassette. He wasn’t happy. And through the years, there have been more than a few products from that company in my household. So I guess I claim Sony, too.
Although Sony’s fortunes have faded compared with those of Apple, it wasn’t all that long ago—relatively speaking—that Akio Morita was as much an exemplar as Steve Jobs is. He talked about developing products that people didn’t know that they wanted. He talked about thinking globally and acting locally. He worked to have products that had distinctive quality design. He worked to change the way people listened and watched and even worked. (Interestingly, the 3.5-in. floppy that Sony invented found its way into the first Macintosh.)
Prior to the public opening of the IFA-Berlin consumer electronics trade fair (www1.messeberlin.de/vip8_1/website/Internet/Internet/www.ifa-berlin/englisch/index.
html) on August 31, Sony announced the launch of the “Sony Tablet.” Yes, this is Sony’s response to the Apple iPad. There are two models: the S, which has a 9.4-in. touch screen, and the P, which is foldable and has two 5.5-in. touch screens.
According to a Bloomberg story (bloomberg.com), when Sony CEO Howard Stringer unveiled the tablets at the event he said, “Yes, yes, Apple makes an iPad, but does it make a movie?” And he also said, “We will prove that it’s not who makes the tablet first who counts but who makes it better.”
Those two quotes require some consideration for people in this industry. First up, the “but does it make a movie?” Sony owns Sony Pictures, which makes movies ranging from Spider-man to The Smurfs. Swell. When Disney bought Pixar Animation for $7.4-billion in stock, Steve Jobs became a major shareholder of Disney, so arguably there’s some movie making there, but it is not the point. People who buy products—cars, trucks or tablets—are interested in the product, in what the product does for them. They don’t care if the company making it is the biggest or the best or the brightest. Those things don’t hurt, but when companies start justifying themselves in that regard, they take their eyes off of what’s important.
Second, “not who makes the tablet first who counts but who makes it better.” Well, that’s sort of correct. Indeed, Sony Betamax preceded JVC’s VHS by about a year. So the first mover isn’t always the one who wins. Still, when someone invests in a particular approach, they tend to get “locked in.” And changing to something else can be costly. This is a consideration that vehicle manufacturers certainly have to start thinking about as electronics for purposes of infotainment become more prevalent in vehicles: Is the second alternative going to be possible? Given the number of companies committed to Microsoft in this space, I wonder whether second will matter.
So Sony takes on Apple. Again. I don’t want to count them out, but Stringer sounds a little bit like GM executives circa 2000. And we know how that movie ended.