Is Apple like Sony?

April 26, 2012

George Colony, chief executive of the Forrester research firm, decided to stir a little trouble this week by publishing a blog post with a provocative headline: Apple = Sony.

The comparison to Sony — the once-great electronics giant faces a projected annual loss of $6.4 billion-- is striking as Apple just announced$39.2 billion in revenue for a quarter in which it nearly doubled its profits.

How could Apple be facing the same fate as Sony?

The post essentially argues that Apple is a company that not only revolved around Steve Jobs, but needed Jobs be at the very heart of the company.

Take the sun out of the solar system, he says, and the company is poised to “coast, and then decelerate,” as Sony did after its founder, Akio Morita, stepped down in 1989. Colony said Apple chief executive Tim Cook is a “proven and competent executive” but hardly the man to run an organization based on charisma. Instead, Colony suggests an Apple executive like Jony Ive or Scott Forstall, who he believes have a little more personality.

While Colony makes some compelling arguments, there are points to consider on on the other side.

For one, the Apple-Sony comparison — while interesting — is not entirely apt. Apple and Sony may have had similar leadership models, but Sony suffers from a lack of focus and poor integration of its products. But those are two areas where Apple excels.

As Cook told investors earlier this year, all of Apple’s products could fit on a single table and the energy of the whole company goes into improving them. And there’s no denying that Apple has defined a true ecosystem of products — one ID and password will let you access and link any Apple product or service.

That can’t be said of Sony, which is working now under the leadership of Kazuo Hirai to break down the silos between the company divisions and allow users to sign into multiple services using a single account.

Apple also has an advantage over Sony, Disney and other companies that Colony names in his post, in that the company was prepared for Jobs to step down. Cook had acted as chief executive in the past, and makes it a point to showcase other members of an executive team hand-picked by Jobs, to carry on all aspects of his leadership style.

Colony is also, perhaps, being a bit hard on Cook. Yes, Cook is quieter than Jobs and certainly didn’t have the same pizzazz that the late Apple co-founder did while introducing the latest new iPad. But they’re very different people. And if Cook had tried to pull off a glitzy show, he would have certainly set himself up for more harsh criticism.

It would also be remiss not to credit Cook with a large part of Apple’s success. As The Washington Post reported, Apple’s supply chain has allowed it to hit a sweet spot on pricing and propelled it to high profits. Cook himself is popular at Apple, with at least one survey showing he has a 97 percent approval rating at the company — two percentage points ahead of Steve Jobs. And he’s been coming into his own, showing some more personality on Apple’s latest earnings call.

The company’s fate, really, rests in the performance of its next big innovation, whatever and whenever that may be. Since Jobs’s death, Apple has continued to provide tweaks to its most popular products, and those changes have propelled the company to greater heights. But Apple — fairly or not — can’t afford a big product flop, and so will have to carefully develop whatever is beyond the pipeline that Jobs left behind.

Might Apple fall from the top of the world? Sure; there’s almost nowhere to go but down. But while Steve Jobs may have been Apple’s puppet master, innovation was at the core of his personality. As long as that focus stays at the heart of the company, it should be insulated against a Sony-like decline.

More technology news:

Apple CEO Tim Cook emerges from Steve Jobs’ shadow, revealing strong opinions and eloquence

Apple shares push up markets on earnings news

Tim Cook, other tech CEOs top CEO ratings

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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