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Disruptive failure: How Acer Took Aim at Dell and HP and missed

Two years ago:

With new netbooks, laptops, desktops, and, yes, a smartphone, Acer CEO Gianfranco Lanci explains why he expects to soon overtake No. 2 PC maker Dell

via Acer Boss Lanci Takes Aim at Dell and HP – BusinessWeek.

Today Acer CEO and President Gianfranco Lanci resigned with immediate effect. Acer is in trouble. You can read more on Acer’s current problems in the wake of the downward revision of its sales targets for two quarters here: Acer Should Overhaul Its Operation: Stan Shih | CENS.com – The Taiwan Economic News

In a nutshell, whereas Acer under Lanci took aim at Dell and HP, it seems that Apple took aim at Acer. And whereas Lanci missed, Apple’s aim was true.

What is interesting here is that Acer had a very disruptive approach. They used the low end “netbook” concept to take share from incumbents motivated to move up-market.

But what went wrong? Part of the answer is that “low end” does not just mean “cheap”. Low end disruption is about also offering simplicity and performance along a new dimension or trajectory of improvement.

Mobile computing could not be implemented as a low-end strategy because the modules available to portable computing could not be used to make it expand into new contexts of consumption. Windows and keyboards and all the input methods associated with portables could not be adapted to mobility. You could not use a netbook in places or at times when you did not use any other laptop.

In addition the business model was not a good match. Low margins could not support development or new integration that could improve that which was not good enough. Acer did not have the means to tackle the problems of not-good-enough mobile computing. They did not build software and low margins meant that they could not even try to build software.

Competitors also were motivated to respond. HP and Dell built their own netbooks which, arguably, were just as good (or, perhaps more accurately, just as bad) as Acer’s. But more problematic was the fact that regular notebook prices dropped to netbook levels and the category came to mean “cheap” not “convenient”.

Finally, Acer’s strategy did not have the time horizon necessary for true disruption. It takes many years to polish a product and nurture it up the trajectory. Acer was too impatient for growth and not patient at all for profit.

Contrast this with Apple’s tablet strategy:

  • It dealt with complexity of computing by removing it. This was not easy as simplification required a new platform altogether–something that portable computers could not benefit from.
  • It priced low but held on to margins because removal of complexity also reduced cost
  • The margins allow it to rapidly iterate on integrated development and improve the product
  • Competitors initially were not motivated to respond. They did not have the tools at hand to respond: no integrated operating system for PC vendors, no distribution for phone vendors.
  • Apple is also patient enough to wait for several product cycles. Even though demand is astronomical, the iPad still has a long way to go to become a new computing standard. Time is on Apple’s side.

Apple is effectively disrupting the PC with asymmetry. It contrasts with Acer’s reliance on a sustaining, symmetric approach. The market was showing clear signs of over-service, declining margins, in-absorbable features and performance and complexity.

Calling the winner in 2009 may have been tough given no iPad was visible, but knowing Apple’s resources, processes and motivations should have guided observers to the right answer.