The first round of tech-sector financial results for 2009 are in. They prove Steve Ballmer right: we are not immune.
The most sobering aspect of this realisation isn't the numbers, which are bad enough: it's the vulnerability of some — if not quite all — of the industry's biggest names.
Take Sony. While the market was buoyant, it talked a good game. A strong brand in TVs, good technology in the PlayStation 3, winner of the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD wars. But those strengths prove to be weaknesses in a tough environment. Premium consumer electronics brands do badly when there's no quality differentiation between them and cheaper options; cost-cutting is harder on the PS3 than on its rivals, and Blu-Ray is no match for BitTorrent.
Likewise Microsoft. The strongest financial area for the company is in annual licensing, where corporate inertia has seemed an inexhaustible source of free money. But in a market desperate to cut costs, it will be very hard for the company to answer one question: why should enterprises in a recession fund 15 percent growth in Microsoft's corporate licensing? Consumers, happily buying low-cost netbooks that frequently have no Microsoft software on them at all, have already found their answer. As a result, the company is looking at an eight percent drop in client revenues.
Add in Nokia and LG, and nobody seems recession-proof. Except one company: Apple. Where Nokia and Sony have failed in mobile phones, Apple has shown explosive growth. Where Sony, LG and Microsoft have failed in personal audio, Apple confounds everyone who thinks the iPod is done. Portable computing? Painful for Microsoft, growth area for Apple. The only place it is falling back is in desktop computers, where a 25 percent drop in US sales looks bad — but then, desktops are going the way of the minicomputer, into niches, thence oblivion.
Enterprises looking not just to survive but to prosper can take heart: it is possible. But it requires two things Apple does far better than any of its competitors: discipline and a painstaking attention to detail, both which it applies from top to bottom in products, communication with the outside world, and internal affairs.
Sony is riven by fearsome rivalries. Microsoft seems soft, bloated and unable to make its mind up. Nokia scatterguns its way through life, pushing out ideas. Apple makes mistakes — but it learns from them, and only repeats success. Where once we looked East for inspiration in technological market supremacy, the land of the rising sun has been transplanted to California.
Of course, attention to detail and an infinite capacity to take pains are entirely incompatible with panic, denial and despair. Looking at today's results, there is only one question worth asking: which way do you want to go?