Can Lenovo Beat Apple? Is Linux the Secret Weapon?

Rob Enderle

Other than giving a bunch of Apple fans the initiative to call me nasty names (go here to understand why), the real question I'd like you to consider is, "Can anyone beat Apple?"


The answer is yes. No company is impossible to beat. Clearly, Apple has been pounded in the past, but with every cell phone and MP3 player company on the planet focused on kicking Apple's hind end, why the heck hasn't anyone been able to do it yet?


At the Intel Developer Forum, I saw two devices that show the potential, once they mature, to do Apple significant damage (Apple fans, note the words "once they mature" and "potential," not making a prediction here, I'm asking a question). Aigo had a next-generation iPhone-like product with a keyboard, and Lenovo had done a vastly better job with the UI but lacked the critical keyboard. Both had chosen Linux, much like Apple initially chose UNIX, to flesh out their offerings. Of the two, the Lenovo product had the overall better fit and finish. Lenovo also has resources and capabilities in line with Apple. Aigo is much smaller and not as well known.


Can Apple Be Beat?


Whether we are talking about taking on HP, Microsoft, GE, or any company dominant in a market class, there is a formula. This formula has to do with understanding where the company is strongest and weakest and making sure you don't focus all of your resources on the strengths. Apple doesn't compete with Microsoft on OSs, infrastructure or productivity software as standalone products because it would lose and lose badly. What Apple does is compete against Microsoft on packaged solutions, which are much more similar to how Microsoft took on and beat Lotus than it is to how folks typically try to compete with Apple. Bundles are powerful and "embrace and extend" actually works.


The key to an Apple-beating solution is to provide something that does what Apple does well enough that Apple's solution becomes redundant. The obvious attack vector earlier this decade was the cell phone which, when coupled with a good iTunes-like back end, could make the iPod redundant. Microsoft misfired with the Zune, which initially wasn't competitive and then was a little better. But too few people missed having an FM radio or understood the advantages of subscription music well enough. I could also argue the device wasn't attractive enough nor the marketing strong, but the result is a matter of history.


Apple, upon seeing the threat, brought out its phone first and effectively blocked this weakness. Yes, it effectively made the iPod redundant, but only to its own iPhone, and it held onto the revenue stream and customers brilliantly.


Where Apple Is Exposed


Where Apple remains exposed is on e-mail. RIM, the poster child for e-mail solutions, grew strongly last year, apparently helped more by the iPhone than hurt by it. RIM lacks the capability, apparently, to build a device that can match the iPhone with the consumer. so it didn't take away from the iPhone either, but certainly showcased where the iPhone was exposed. I would argue that RIM is more exposed than Apple in a fight between the two, based on some head-to-head analysis.


Apple has several other exposures. It is connected to a single carrier, which isn't exactly the most popular in the U.S.; its device isn't well integrated with Windows, which remains the dominant desktop operating system; it lacks the battery life and screen size to be a truly great video player; and its device browser doesn't support all Web standards (particularly flash). While it is supposedly working on the inability to provide a subscription-based service, it can't yet provide it. These services remain for many the better value. Finally, interoperability isn't one of its strengths, but this is substantially offset by the fact that Apple is dominant in this portable media player segment (so folks jump through hoops to interoperate with it).


Where Apple Is Strongest


Apple does a better job of building demand for its products than anyone else. Apple does end-to-end usability, and does it well. Yes, its products tend towards fragile, but from the moment you open the box, to your iTunes experience, to the smile the products put on your face, Apple gets that people, not companies, sell products. The company does user experience better than anyone else I can point to.


The products tend to be the most attractive in any given segment. Pride causes people to talk about the products. While I personally think Apple makes many of its products too fragile, there is no denying that they are beautiful. That beauty is part of why they do so well.


The iPod/iPhone Killer: Can Lenovo Beat Apple?


It'll have to match on user experience, demand generation marketing, and creating a product folks are proud of. Currently, it lacks a back end for its offering, but has demonstrated strong marketing in the past, so may be able to match there.


Obviously, the device needs to be wireless and embrace the core iPhone features, but it needs to be able to use more than one carrier (to flank Apple) and address the e-mail weakness. It needs to be better with video both in terms of access and battery life and experience. It needs to do one more thing folks want that they can't do well with the iPod; that could be GPS (which most of the MIDs apparently do well).


The first-generation Lenovo device comes close, but it isn't a home run. Giving Apple time to address its competitive weaknesses is probably not a great idea.


Could Linux Be the Key?


One of the major assets Apple has is the Apple fan, but the Linux fan base is equally strong and can show amazing coordination, if threatened. But, while they have showcased the ability to attack, can they promote an offering like this and, given its nature, will they?


Linux could either be the ace in the hole or a complete waste of effort in this regard. It solely depends on the Linux fans' willingness to actively support products in this class. If they did step up, and the solution could close the other competitive gaps, we could have an interesting battle instead of the normal Apple easy victory.


Wrapping Up


Eventually, Intel's MID platform will make it over to the iPhone. The not-too-subtle question I'm asking is whether Lenovo, or anyone else, can step up decisively to the competitive opportunity before that happens. (I know Apple will likely deny this, but doesn't it always deny things it later does?) When there is an iPhone/iPod killer, and there will be, the odds still favor Apple to build it, but there is an unprecedented opportunity to beat the odds. Let's see if Lenovo or anyone else is able to at least make this a memorable battle. First, they better really study Apple.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Apr 9, 2008 3:52 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Just because there is a weakness doesn't mean that a loss is certain. To the Apple fan just suggesting Apple could be weak is tantamount to sacrilege yet it doesnt change the fact that all companies have weaknesses. You can build a better hardware product than the iPod, what folks seem to miss is that it takes more than just a "better product" they need to build a better overall solution, match user experience, and market the result. You point out the Zune II which had hardware advantages, particularly for video and capacity, over the iPod Touch but it had nowhere near a competitive marketing budget and lacked anything on the back end provided those videos to consume. Microsoft simply did not do what needed to be done to win and the numbers showcase this. Any company, any product, any athlete can be beaten. But you have to come to the game willing to do what it takes to beat them. Historically both Apple and Microsoft have been blessed with competitors unwilling to do that in areas where they currently dominate. I find it fascinating that Microsoft itself seems to now be making similar mistakes with both Google and Apple. As far as why you need flash support, your Apple roots are showing, Flash is widely used for more than video and is common on Web 2.0 sites. Reference here: As far as which phone is better at video today, that has nothing to do with my point which was that as a video device, the iPhone/iPod lines are exposed due to screen size. Big is better for video. There is no doubt the iPhone/iPod touch will be obsolete. The original iPod, original Nano, and the original Mac are all obsolete today. My whole question was will Apple, as they typically are, be the beneficiary of this evolutionary cycle again or will someone like Lenovo step in and get there because of Linux not Microsoft. The question marks in the title are generally a huge clue to whether Im making a prediction or asking a question. I conclude by saying the odds favor Apple with the subtle message that just as Apple has done, sometimes companies can beat the odds. Reply
Apr 9, 2008 4:41 AM kdt kdt  says:
It's not about being an Apple fan. After reading the article you referenced from Gearlog, it's more about not using any of the sites they referenced -- except for Google Docs. I'm not saying that just because I don't use them that they are useless.As you said "Finally, interoperability isnt one of its strengths, but this is substantially offset by the fact that Apple is dominant in this portable media player segment (so folks jump through hoops to interoperate with it).".So don't you think that with the popularity of the iPhone and the SDK that developers and web operators will also jump through hoops to make things work? Two examples are all of the apps that have already been written for the jailbroken iPhone/Touch and that the record labels were willing to give up DRM just so that other companies could sell iPod compatible music. Reply
Apr 9, 2008 11:40 AM kdt kdt  says:
"This formula has to do with understanding where the company is strongest and weakest and making sure you dont focus all of your resources on the strengths."Didn't you just say the same thing last year about the iPod? You said that Apple left itself open by not introducing a high capacity version of the Touch and that MS had a chance on pounce on that weakness. According to NPD, all MP3 manufacturers except for Apple saw a sales decline."Where Apple remains exposed is on e-mail."How? Apple just made an announcement less than a month ago that it was licensing ActiveSync for Exchange support."Apple has several other exposures. It is connected to a single carrier, which isnt exactly the most popular in the U.S.; "AT&T has the most subscribers in the US. All of the studies have shown that iPhone users are actually coming to AT&T from other carriers."it lacks the battery life and screen size to be a truly great video player; and its device browser doesnt support all Web standards (particularly flash). "Which phone has better battery life for video or a higher resolution screen than the iPhone? Since when was Flash a "web standard" and is the lack of flash really that bad seeing that the iPhone supports YouTube? Reply
Apr 11, 2008 1:39 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Agreed, that is one of the strengths of the iPhone/Touch. This wasn't intented to be a "pound on Apple" piece. So yes, I do think that the iPhone does already have folks jumping through hoops and pointed that advantage out to show the offset. Once again this was simply to showcase the opportunity not to say Apple would lose, and I close by saying they still have the overall advantage. Reply

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