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The real threat that Samsung poses to Apple

[The following is a post written by James Allworth.

James is the co-author of How Will You Measure Your Life?. He has worked as a Fellow at the Forum for Growth and Innovation at Harvard Business School, at Apple, and Booz & Company. It follows and builds on a discussion we had on the 56th Critical Path podcast.

You can connect directly with James on Twitter at @jamesallworth -ed]

A lot of ink has been spilled in the wake of the recent Apple Samsung patent disputes, and the legal wars see no sign of abating any time soon. The rise of Samsung’s phone business has been meteoric, and Apple is right to be concerned. But the real threat that Samsung poses to Apple has very little to do with the copying (or not) of Apple’s designs. The lawsuits have simply been a convenient (if expensive and risky) way to attempt to quash a threat that is of Apple’s own making. While there’s no doubt that Google has played a key role in Samsung’s success by handing out a free mobile operating system to pretty much anyone who wants to build one — it is actually Apple, more than any other company, that is responsible for Samsung’s present success.

How? By outsourcing as much work to Samsung as they have. And it’s impossible not to wonder whether Tim Cook’s announcement yesterday on bringing back Apple’s manufacturing to the USA is the beginnings of an attempt to rectify the problem.

But first, I want to establish why copying is actually less of a threat to Apple than you might think. Daring Fireball’s John Gruber wrote last year on what he termed “The New Apple Advantage“. Like most people who appreciate Apple and its products, the starting point for Gruber’s appreciation of Apple is its design — he says as much in the article. But the realization that Gruber has in the article on Apple’s true competitive advantage is what’s really interesting:

So let’s be lazy for a second here, and attribute all of Apple’s success over the past 15 years to two men: Steve Jobs and Tim Cook. We’ll give Jobs the credit for the adjectives beautiful, elegant, innovative, and fun. We’ll give Cook the credit for the adjectives affordable, reliable, available, and profitable. Jobs designs them, Cook makes them and sells them.

It’s the Jobs side of the equation that Apple’s rivals — phone, tablet, laptop, whatever — are able to copy. Thus the patents and the lawsuits. Design is copyable. But the Cook side of things — Apple’s economy of scale advantage — cannot be copied by any company with a complex product lineup. How could Dell, for example, possibly copy Apple’s operations when they currently classify “Design & Performance” and “Thin & Powerful” as separate laptop categories?

This realization sort of snuck up on me. I’ve always been interested in Apple’s products because of their superior design; the business side of the company was never of as much interest. But at this point, it seems clear to me that however superior Apple’s design is, it’s their business and operations strength — the Cook side of the equation — that is furthest ahead of their competition, and the more sustainable advantage. It cannot be copied without going through the same sort of decade-long process that Apple went through.
(emphasis mine)

The argument is beautifully made. The design part of Apple’s equation is to their ability to redefine new industries as they did with the iPhone. Whether they go after the TV market next, or something else, it’s this integrated design component that will be crucial to their initial success. But compared to the business side of Apple, design actually generates much less sustained strategic advantage in any one product category, once performance in that category becomes “good enough”. The tech industry has always revolved around copying. Once folks work out how it’s done, everyone piles on. And at that point, it becomes much less about design than it does about how you operate your business.

It is the last part of the Gruber quote that really drives things home. “It cannot be copied without going through the same sort of decade-long process that Apple went through”. He’s right — it’s very hard for a competitor to outright replicate what Apple has achieved without going through all the same steps. But it got me thinking of a concept — and a related story — that I learned from someone I was fortunate enough to have as a teacher: Clayton Christensen. Perhaps a competitor didn’t have to copy Apple.

What happens if Apple had already taught them?

Christensen first wrote about the dangers of outsourcing in The Innovator’s Solution, explaining how seeking to maximize efficiency by employing third party vendors to do the “low value-add” work for you can be a lethal strategy. In the Solution, Christensen and Michael Raynor gave the example of two fictional corporations—”Component Corporation” and “Texas Computer Corporation”. I had the good fortune to work with Clay on his most recent book, How Will You Measure Your Life?, and we recount a similar story; only without any of the players being disguised. The story is that of Asus and Dell, and how by outsourcing its work—starting with just basic circuit boards—Dell equipped a competitor:

Asus came to Dell and said, “We’ve done a good job fabricating these motherboards for you. Why don’t you let us assemble the whole computer for you, too? Assembling those products is not what’s made you successful. We can take all the remaining manufacturing assets off your balance sheet, and we can do it all for 20 percent less.”

The Dell analysts realized that this, too, was a win- win…

That process continued as Dell outsourced the management of its supply chain, and then the design of its computers themselves. Dell essentially outsourced everything inside its personal-computer business—everything except its brand— to Asus. Dell’s Return on Net Assets became very high, as it had very few assets left in the consumer part of its business.

Then, in 2005, Asus announced the creation of its own brand of computers. In this Greek-tragedy tale, Asus had taken everything it had learned from Dell and applied it for itself. It started at the simplest of activities in the value chain, then, decision by decision, every time that Dell outsourced the next lowest-value-adding of the remaining activities in its business, Asus added a higher value-adding activity to its business.

There are two sides to this story: the part that relates to Dell, and the part that relates to Asus. Dell, in its quest to maximize its financial efficiency, continued to outsource way beyond manufacturing components and assembly. They outsourced a long way up the value chain. But there’s also the side of the story that relates to Asus — a small components manufacturer that was, in effect, nursed to success by Dell. The extent of the schooling delivered by Dell to Asus was pretty profound, given how far up the value chain Dell outsourced its operations.

But here’s a question: at what point did Dell seal its fate? When was it that Dell had outsourced enough that Asus, with a desire to simply get out of the low-value work, could have made it all the way to the point that it did? I’m beginning to wonder whether just component development and assembly was enough. In the case of Samsung, it seems that everything else they needed to learn, they did by entering the emerging market, which Apple has largely left alone.

Now, it’s obvious that there are some very clear differences between the decisions that Apple have made in terms of outsourcing, and the decisions Dell have made. Dell outsourced its business all the way up to the design of its products. In many respects, Apple is doing the opposite — going so far as to even bring chip design in house. Horace has done some fantastic work detailing the extensive amount of investment Apple has made in its supply chain and it’s clear that they’ve spent a lot of money investing in equipment used in production.

But there’s also no denying that Apple has begun to rely extensively on a network of suppliers across Asia.

It’s when you start putting the two arguments together that you realize that Apple may have a more serious problem on its hands. I want to again recount the final two lines of Gruber’s argument:

It’s their business and operations strength — the Cook side of the equation — that is furthest ahead of their competition, and the more sustainable advantage. It cannot be copied without going through the same sort of decade-long process that Apple went through.

He’s right — generating that scale requires a long gestation period — one that Apple went through. And it can’t be copied without significant time and effort on the part of a competitor. But there’s one big implicit assumption here — that suppliers won’t turn around and start developing their own offering. Because when Apple went through this transformative process, where the design whittled down the broad range of offerings to just a few, and they generated the scale on the business side that accompanied that — they weren’t actually the only one to go through that process. Apple’s partners — their suppliers — went through it with them. And they’ve got very big, and very good at what they do. Samsung, obviously, is among those partners.

Now, the response I often hear to this line of reasoning is: Apple hasn’t outsourced anywhere near as much as Dell has. How are the situations analogous? But I think it’s actually the wrong question. Instead, the question is: has Apple already outsourced too much?

For all intents and purposes, we’re at a level of maturity in the smartphone market where I believe design — particularly on the hardware side — has largely become commoditised. Performance is now “good enough”. Whereas it was not so long ago that consumers sat on the edge of their seats to find out what the new iPhone had to offer (“please, fix the battery life”, or “please, make it faster”) the recent release of the iPhone 5 seemed not to generate the same intense reaction. Now, I’m not saying it won’t sell well — in fact, it will probably become the best selling phone of all time — but people aren’t making these decisions based on huge design differences between the devices. The basis of competition has shifted. HTC recently learned this the hard way when it introduced the One X — a phone that, to the critics, at least, was considered the best Android phone available — “a masterpiece“,  “one of the best mobile devices I’ve ever used“. Yet it has been absolutely crushed in the marketplace by Samsung.  How? Well, Samsung used its business scale to, as Horace put it on Twitter, “invite operators to a better party with an eye-watering marketing budget”. This has nothing to do with Samsung making a better phone (they probably didn’t), or Samsung copying Apple (indeed, HTC may have just done a better job of copying Apple). Instead, it has everything to do with the fact that Samsung has had its business sucked along in Apple’s slipstream.

There’s another way of seeing just how deep the problem lies. Jobs promised “thermonuclear war” on the copied devices, and so far, the biggest target of Apple’s many legal warheads has undoubtedly been Samsung. Getting a $1 billion judgement certainly proves Apple was serious about it. But doesn’t it seem strange to you that the target of such a devastating strategy on the legal side, just so happens to be… one of the most important suppliers for Apple’s new phone?

The problem that Apple is facing right now has nothing to do with their designs being copied. There is a long history of copying in the tech industry; patents being deployed in lawsuits by giants often signify desperation more than anything else. Rather, the problem that Apple faces is that it now is going up against at least one competitor that has been a beneficiary of the scale that Apple has achieved on the business side. Samsung has clearly demonstrated that, like Asus, it was not satisfied being a low-margin ODM — of doing all the menial work while somebody else made the big bucks. Suing Samsung over Android patents isn’t going to change that — if Google’s operating system gets too expensive to use, there’ll be a switch made to Microsoft. Or to another operating system altogether. It doesn’t really matter, because design in the smartphone space has been commoditized. It’s good enough. Manufacturers are now creating performance that most consumers aren’t able to absorb. Instead, as we’ve moved into a world where performance is now “good enough”, the world has flipped into one where it’s the business side — operational scale — that matters most.

Apple have taken steps to minimize the ability of competitors to duplicate their business advantage. There’s a great post here on Quora describing how Apple has used its supply chain as a competitive advantage and how competitors end up subsidizing Apple’s use of the technology. But the approach of “locking in” key new technology so nobody else can get them works best in a world where consumers need more performance from their devices — a world is rapidly slipping away.

So, what’s Apple got to do? In so much as it is able to trust its suppliers of key components not to become competitors, it can continue to use them. But where it can’t, or where those suppliers have already become competitors, it has only one sensible choice — replace them. It has two choices here: the first (and obvious one) is with another supplier. But that risks the same thing happening all over again — Apple nursing another supplier into a competitor. The second choice: for components and services that are critical to maintaining competitive advantage in the markets which Apple plays, Apple needs to build the components themselves.

Most companies wouldn’t be in a position do that. But Apple is almost already there. I also hear that there might be a country out there with relatively high unemployment rate, looking for some jobs to be brought back home. Funnily enough, it seems that’s just what Tim Cook is doing right now. This approach might just be a good way of on-shoring some of those untaxed offshore profits (I imagine the tax benefits for building a few factories in the US would be quite high), all the while taking away business from competitors — both current and future.

But there’s one question that still remains. In the instance of the threat that Samsung poses to Apple: is it already too late?

Looking for more information on the renaissance of production and its effect on the technology industries? Then come to Asymconf and take part in the debate.