Saturday, April 9, 2011

Apple: 800-Pound Gorilla?

Apple is being described as "locking up" supplies of touch screens so that competitors can't buy parts. This isn't new, actually. Back before the iPod was big, Apple had ordered so many of Toshiba's new-to-the-market 1.8" hard drives (unavailable elsewhere) that Toshiba wasn't willing to give anyone else a price break: Apple had ordered first, and cornered the market, achieving "almost a complete monopoly of these drives for about a year." Competitors who wanted into the market segment targeted by the iPod had two choices: a physically larger, heavier (ick) player, or a player that had the itty-bitty capacity then supported by Flash memory (bleh). The iPod had a moat borne of superior supply agreements. Apple isn't buying a huge supply just out of spite, though: it wants to secure a large supply at a price known in advance. The cost of that deal is big up-front cash payments for continuous supply at guaranteed-stable prices.

At the very time it threatens the component pricing of its competitors, Apple is accused of "poaching" PR execs from major game companies (presumably to position iPhone/iPod/iPad against Wii/PS2/etc.). What a drag, to compete with Apple's new iPhone5 and derivative iPod Touch just as the parts supply to chase Apple's market niche vanishes beneath a wave of large-scale prepaid supply contracts. Why might Apple be keen to press its advantages so hard? For one, Apple's been on the wrong side of giants with lots of cash making platform-development deals. Apple has been taught in the roughest possible way that computing hardware is about software ecosystems and content as much as about hardware capabilities and prices, and it's a hard-won lesson that may keep Apple from making the same mistakes again in the mobile arena.

To give you an idea about the scale of Apple's current success, consider its competition with what was once the most valuable company on the planet: Microsoft. Despite Jobs' 1996 declaration that the platform wars were over, and that Apple had lost, Microsoft's 2011 chief executive has Apple envy: Ballmer wants as many retail stores as Apple, but the stores just aren't performing well enough to justify the effort.

Steve Jobs' 1996 Wired interview is an interesting read in 2011. Since his return to Apple, the company has definitely leveraged some hard-earned lessons to its great advantage. Who's the 800-pound gorilla now?

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