Toshiba VP On Innovator's Dilemma: Apple's Disruption Is Uncomfortable But Good

At his 1998 Macworld keynote, Steve Jobs heralded Apple's then-newly simplified product strategy. The company would only market four basic verticals: a desktop and mobile computer line, each with consumer and pro versions.

"When we got to the company a year ago, there were a lot of products—15 product platforms with a zillion variants on each one," Jobs said at the time. "I couldn't even figure this out myself … How are we going to explain this to others when we don't even know which products to recommend to our friends?"

Now, more than a decade later, PC makers are still following the confusing and antiquated product strategy that Jobs had banned at Apple. For the launch of Windows 8, Microsoft's new operating system, hardware makers have attacked the market with endless product lines and form factors: massive touch-screen desktops; notebooks of all shapes and sizes and names; hybrid PCs that detach and flip and swivel and swing; and tablets with attachable keyboards, pens, docking stations, and external battery packs. This see-what-sticks approach is all the more remarkable in an age when Apple, with just one simple product line—the iPad—now outsells the entire PC lineups of these hardware makers (or OEMs). Apple's success is a sign of just how out of touch some of these manufacturers are, and it serves as symbol of how much disruption they face in the market today, especially in mobile. "There's a lot of noise out there," says Jeff Barney, executive VP in charge of Toshiba's PC and TV business for the Americas. "I have a hard time tracking all of the models that are hitting the market right now."

Toshiba Satellite U925t

For Toshiba, the endless devices its competitors are selling represent an opportunity: The company has decided to limit the number of products it's pushing for the launch of Windows 8. The Satellite U925t, for example, a slide-out hybrid laptop-tablet, is one of the few gadgets the company is marketing this holiday season. And although I'm not terribly impressed with the device (here's a great review of the U925t), it's at least a sign that PC makers are learning traditional product strategies are no longer relevant. "We tried to take a more narrow approach in our product line instead of inundating the consumer with a bunch of different form factors," Barney says. "You're going to see a lot more clarity in form factor early next year. That's the nature of a big launch: Everyone hustles to get more of the halo products out there, and they become perfected in the months following. I think that you will start to see winners and losers in terms of Windows 8 designs early next year."

Still, despite a narrower product strategy, it's unclear whether these hardware makers can even catch up to Apple in the mobile market. On the day I chatted with Barney, for example, Apple had just unveiled the iPad Mini, its fifth-generation tablet, with CEO Tim Cook boasting on stage that the company had just sold its 100 millionth iPad. Its unprecedented success in the market signals its vertical model of controlling both the hardware and software may have significant advantages. Toshiba and other hardware makers must rely on third-party software from Microsoft and Google to keep up—that's the reason many of these OEMs are years late to the mobile market, because Windows 8, a mobile-centric operating system, has only now become available.

"Apple has done a tremendous job to exploit that market opportunity—we're not unaware of Apple's success in their model," Barney says. "What our next steps may be are things for us to consider down the line. Certainly Apple has shown a very strong business model on the tablet side. Obviously there is a huge tablet market out there, but many would argue it's very incremental to the laptop market. I think we have taken that position also."

When I ask whether Toshiba's reliance on Windows and Android has its downsides, Barney answers, "I wouldn't say it's a disadvantage, but certainly the landscape has changed."

And when I ask whether Toshiba is experiencing some form of the innovator's dilemma, Barney lets out a chuckle. "That's a very good question," he says. "I think we'll have to answer that question when we can look back on where we're at right now and decide whether or not that's really the issue."

Barney adds, "I think from our standpoint, disruption, although uncomfortable, is good. Because it's going to force Toshiba and others to step up and deliver new and innovative platforms. We're very happy with our relationship with Microsoft."

[Image: Flickr user Melanie Allan]

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