Five not-so-obvious reasons why Apple won't be Sony redux

Forrester CEO George Colony argues that Apple will lose its way like Sony did. Colony's argument revolves around charisma, but he misses a few key competitive advantages.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Forrester CEO George Colony argued that Apple is going to turn out a lot like Sony---a consumer electronics juggernaut that lost its way and turned out to be a complete mess.

Colony's argument, which raised a bit of a ruckus, has a familiar contrarian ring to it. You set up an argument, sound very rational and people buy into it. Bearish arguments always sound better. I've had my share of bearish arguments and bets only to find out you can sound pretty damn good and be extremely wrong.

The crux of Colony's case is that Apple was a charismatic organization that revolved around Steve Jobs. Colony said:

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.

Now this isn't a huge leap to make. Apple is at the top of the mountain in tech. That reality usually means there's only one place to go. Of course, Apple will slip somewhere. Every company does. But Colony argues Apple will be like Sony. Here are five reasons---that have nothing to do with charisma---why Apple won't become Sony 2.0.

Apple isn't a silo-ed conglomerate. One reason Apple won't be Sony is because the organizational structure is completely different. Sony's business units break down like this: Content (movies and music), games, TVs, consumer electronics, smartphones and financial services. Sony's problems largely stem from a lack of coordination between its units. Apple is vertically integrated. Colony's argument would have more merit to me if Apple suddenly started developing movies.

When Apple's annual report has a chart like (via Sony's annual report) this you can start the worrywart parade.

Connective tissue. Apple's products and services are all integrated and designed to couple hardware, software and design. Sony had no connective tissue. Even Apple's likely foray into television will have glue connecting the new product to other products like the iPad, iPhone and Mac. This connective tissue shouldn't be underestimated. Apple has spent decades with its integration approach.

Supply chain prowess. Apple dominates the technology supply chain like no other company in recent memory. Flash memory is dominated by Apple. Apple can use Foxconn as if it is its own manufacturing arm. Apple can dictate terms with suppliers, grab LCD screen supplies and procure parts like no other. Colony partially dismisses Cook's charisma and creativity. I'd argue he's just looking at the wrong part of the company. Apple's supply chain---largely created by Cook---is a work of art. Also see: Supply chain wars: Hon Hai's Sharp investment helps Apple vs. SamsungWith Apple’s new iPad, supply chain is the hero

Preparation and institutionalized culture. Apple's biggest advantage leading into the post Jobs era is that it saw everything coming. Jobs didn't die suddenly. The company created Apple University and is institutionalizing product design. On Apple's most recent earnings conference call, Cook was asked about the merger of tablets and laptops. He said:

Well, I think anything can be forced to merge. But the problem is that the products are about tradeoffs. And you begin to make tradeoffs to the point where what you have left at the end of the day doesn't please anyone. And you can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things probably not going to be pleasing to the user.

It's unclear whether Apple has taken the Jobs culture and institutionalized it, but the company is more prepared than any comparison earlier. Also see: Tim Cook and a more likeable Apple

An obvious untapped market. Let's say Colony is correct and Apple simply coasts. Well guess what? Apple is encroaching on the enterprise market without really trying. Apple could theoretically slip in the consumer market and make up its profit and margins by dealing more directly with businesses. Sony had no obvious slam dunk ahead. Also don't forget Cook was a former IBMer. He knows the enterprise.  Also see: Apple earnings, 2Q12: 5 enterprise takeaways

Editorial standards