Panasonic vs. Apple: Substance over Appearance

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This week I've been in Japan on a deep dive with Matsushita, a firm most of us know as Panasonic (it's in the process of taking that name globally). In watching presentation after presentation, I was struck by the reverence the firm had for its departed leader, Konosuke Matsushita. I naturally compared the situation to that of Apple, a firm I've followed much more closely.


In the U.S., the vast majority of Panasonic's laptop business is in enterprise and government -- a space where Apple, which actually sells more PCs overall, is almost insignificant. Still, Panasonic is far from a major player. Both companies clearly would like to expand their sales presence. The two firms don't really compete generally, going after different user profiles, but I thought I would force a comparison to make a broader point: Perhaps we focus too much on what is shiny and not enough on the substantive things that actually could make our lives better and more productive.


Toughbook vs. MacBook


There is no sharper contrast than that between Apple and Panasonic's premier products. Apple's current flagship offering is the MacBook Air, which can fit inside an interoffice envelope and quite literally can cause lust in most that see it. Upon seeing it for the first time, my own wife said she wanted to toss her brand-new Sony Vaio and get it instead. It is sexy and thin but the tradeoffs it makes to get there are significant in terms of battery life, performance and connectivity. Products like this typically have a service life measured in months.


Panasonic's flagship product is probably the Toughbook 30, and there is likely no product more different from the MacBook Air on the market. This product is about three times the weight, it is designed to survive in battlefield conditions and literally (previous products have) stop a bullet. With a screen that is outdoor viewable and a battery that might be able to start a small car, products in this class are expected to remain in service for years. Some are actually running Windows for Workgroups, the product that preceded Windows 95 in full service.


If you put the MacBook Air into a backpack, you probably wouldn't even know it was there. Some backpacks probably wouldn't even be able to hold the Toughbook. However, if your life depended on the product booting up and working, the Air wouldn't even be considered. The Toughbook is the dominant product where lives depend on laptops.


Contrasting the Founders


Steve Jobs is an expert at creating a vision and driving people to it. He is clearly the most powerful person inside Apple, and there is little doubt that his vision is the one the company follows. Konosuke Matsushita, in contrast, always viewed himself as a merchant. His views that the customer should be the source of product vision and direction and that revenues and profits should be secondary to customer loyalty are widely known.


Both companies engender a lot of customer loyalty in their respective target markets. Apple by constantly selling customers on not only what they will buy but what they bought, and Panasonic through massive efforts to build nearly indestructible offerings that hold up under conditions that would typically destroy most anything else.


With employees, Konosuke Matsushita believed that they should be treated like family; the social pressures of not disappointing family play a large role in ensuring these employees perform to expectations. Steve Jobs is famous for making it clear that he can fire anyone on a whim and Apple employees often appear scared half to death of the guy. Both approaches clearly work. The amazing things that Apple accomplishes keep people at the company, but I know which approach I'd rather be working under.


Finally, much of what Konosuke Matsushita created was designed to last long after his death. The company actually has a 250-year plan in which a massive required focus on being socially and environmentally beneficial is mandated. There is some doubt there is even a good succession plan at Apple; current concerns seem to be on whether the firm can survive what may be an approaching departure by its CEO.


Wrapping Up


I have a friend who is going through a nasty divorce and child custody battle that largely resulted because he married a beautiful woman who, by any measure, shouldn't have ever been anyone's wife. We often choose products, partners and relationships based more on appearance and successful marketing than we do on the real metrics we should have applied -- and regret that choice in hindsight.


The purpose of this comparison is not to get anyone to buy Panasonic over Apple. Even though Panasonic does have a semi-rugged line, most folks approaching either company's products are simply not going to find the alternative acceptable. But I wonder if that often doesn't say something more broadly about the people making the purchase decision than it does about the product. In reality, a lot of people who buy Apple products undoubtedly do so with solid justification, particularly in the media creation space. But I'll bet the percentage is much higher for Panasonic because it isn't the pretty face.


Granted, the perfect product would likely be both attractive and substantive, but I hope that this serves as a reminder that if forced to choose between the two, substance is undoubtedly the better path.