What happened to Japan's electronic giants?

[Text below extracted largely from my comments on this Hacker News discussion about this BBC news item although there is slightly more there it needs the context of the thread which I can't pull into this blog post easily (or legally given copyright laws).]

There is some truth in this article but it misses some of the really key factors.

  1. Value of the Yen. The Yen is seen as a safe haven and has been at almost ridiculous levels (considering trade balances and government debt) at least since late 2008. This is crippling exports (and/or profitability) in these price sensitive markets (TV's, computers, phones) as even though much production is abroad they still have massive cost bases in Japan.
  2. Development of Korea. LG and especially Samsung took the place of the aggressive upstarts driving down prices and then building up the quality as Japan once did to the West in markets such as cars. It will be interesting to see what China's development does to Korea in 15-20 years. So far the aggressive pricing from Korea has kept Chinese TV brands from prominence but that may not last.
  3. As Japan prospered and incomes rose it became uneconomic to manufacture commodity items there. Outsourcing and offshoring production damages the feedback and development loop between production and design that enables efficient optimum design of products. Also they narrowed the parts of the supply chain that they supplied to focus on the high value ones that could still be profitable but that costs control and foresight into important developing areas. e.g. Samsung could develop LCD panels in exact form factors to fit their devices and to use them as structural elements in TVs getting a jump start on Sony. (Sharp had[has?] their own panels but the quality wasn't uniformly high and they were overly dependent on their home TV market anyway).
  4. There is very little profit in many electronics items. TVs especially are not a source of profits (maybe Samsung makes some but it is hard to tell from their annual reports). Aggressive and falling prices, unstable panel supplies and the fact egos and ecosystems are on the line means that the once stable profit source of CRT TVs has been replaced by an LCD bloodbath. Even in mobile phones only Apple and Samsung are really making money (along with a number of component suppliers getting their slices).
[In response to a comment about Sony having missed the boat on the idea of connected devices and the ecosystem that "Google and Apple have done so very well."]

[Sony have, movie studios, TV studios and record labels] however they lacked the internal structure and strategy to really deploy them effectively. Plus someone would have had to choose a suboptimal strategy for their division's financial results if they were to avoid selling some rights or exclusivity externally but to use it for joined up strategies. (Or the low profit hardware arm would have had to paid commercial rates.)

It also surprisingly gets harder in many ways to negotiate for other rights when you have your own studio/record label and who wants to only watch/listen to Sony content. Anti-trust law may be a factor in this (as a content owner Sony couldn't legally do an Apple and tell their competitors what pricing model to accept) but also it changes the tone of the negotiation and attitude of other parties when they are your competitor.

And finally just when the network technology and the products are getting to the point where a useful internet delivered content ecosystem can be established somebody high up the organisation decides to split the platform and bend over for Google in order for the honour of making the Google TV for US only under ridiculous contract terms based on Intel hardware costs and to be supported by a dreadful marketing campaign it still sows FUD amongst content partners.

geon > I don't see why being a competitor would make it impossible for Sony to build a media store. It worked for Valve...

Firstly I didn't say it would be impossible just potentially harder than if not a competitor.

I don't know the history of Steam that well but my understanding was that it started as an easy way to get their own games. Yes Sony Music could have done the same (maybe they did but I can't remember) but a store with a seemingly random selection of about 25% of pop music doesn't make a great hit in the era of Napster and when they are still pushing DRM (which Steam also uses).

I don't believe that as a company with about 25% of the music market could legally impose pricing conditions on it's competitors (Valve may allow flexible pricing but iTunes did not at least at the beginning and I don't believe was such a proportion of the market at the time).

Apple TV - The market challenges

In Hacker News discussion "TV will be Apple's Undoing"

TV won't be Apple's undoing but it also isn't obvious that they can win big there.

It is a complicated business with a number of interlocking players at different levels and vested business interests. It is also a global business with rights packaged up at a very national level and sold with exclusive deals.

While the biggest MSO's in each country (cable, satellite and terrestrial operators depending on the market) have the scale to lock in key content/channels to exclusive deals it will be fairly hard to break into the market in a devastating way. At the moment they have the scale and the revenues to do exclusive deals with the content creators (that they don't already own) to keep a large proportion of their customers from leaving. They (not the content creators/owners) are the big bullies in the market and would be hard and expensive to topple.

An AppleTV (including screen) if it does happen will need to be a good enough content offer for most people or it will not be a massive success. If they still have to use their cable box it can't be a game changing user interface because you are looking at the STB interface most of the time.

It's not impossible for Apple but it also won't be easy, particularly to go global. It will cost money to get content which might break Apple's principles and set a bad precedents for them. They also can't go that expensive because while I'm sure the UI will be better Samsung/Sony and some of the others really aren't that bad and the cosmetic designs don't leave that much room for minimalist improvement.

The business case for Apple is far from clear for me at this point but it would be a way to take the war to Samsung that would cost Samsung far more than a billion dollars even for an Apple relative flop. The collateral damage might kill Sharp unless they supplied the panels and would be another knife in Sony/Panasonic/Toshiba that they could do without.

batista > Funny, the said the exact same thing about mobile...

Nearly true but I think the situations are really different - the rights packaged up and sold with exclusive deals didn't apply in a relevant way and there wasn't the same level of complexity.

Carriers were essentially indistinguishable from a customer viewpoint. There was no significantly different content depending on which carrier you used or at least nothing that you would care about if you had an iPhone. This does not apply between broadcast platforms. The exclusive deals any carriers had for content were small scale apps or information services not multi-billion deals for packages of content for particular countries.

Apple played divide and rule between the carriers brilliantly working with a single operator in each country. In some countries that might work for TV where there are well balanced alternative platforms but in others it won't work because there is a dominant player who won't give up control and the challengers are too weak to help Apple much.

In TV there are the content originators (movie studios, sports leagues, independent production companies), one level of aggregators that commission and purchase from the originators and bundle it into channels and another level of aggregation by the service/delivery/billing platforms (MSOs). And then it is sold to the customer. These divisions are not clear and ownerships ofter cross levels.

In mobile it was fairly simple with carriers being the clear centre of the business, buying and subsidising phones and running the infrastructure. There were a couple of platforms running across different phones such as BREW and JavaME but they were more feature tickboxes than major market players.

This doesn't mean it was easy for Apple but the fact they had at the time a truly revolutionary product and reality distorting leader AND there was level competition between the carriers meant that they could pull off an amazing industry changing deal. They had to pull off this deal once in each country not with dozens of different rights holding players (they don't need them all but one deal per country would only be enough with the dominant MSO and probably wouldn't be on good terms as the MSO would know that there is a risk that Apple would want to cut them out when they were big enough).

I also didn't say that it was impossible for Apple to break into the TV market in a massive way but I certainly don't think it is easy or that there is a clear route to massive success. I certainly don't believe it is possible at their current margin levels for either hardware or content but it will be interesting to watch.

I used to do what was really a Business Development and Product Planning role for Sony's European TV Business so I have met with many cable, and a few terrestrial and satellite operators in Europe to persuade them to make their content available over their networks to consumers TVs with CI+ (think European CableCard but not quite such a broken model). Later I worked with many channel operators to bring them onto Sony's Internet TV platform so I do have some understanding of the TV business.


[Hacker News comment]

They are a copycat but one with brilliant industrial design capabilities (not just a nice product but efficient to assemble), a ruthless competitive streak, most complete supply chain of any CE company (screens, semi conductors and god knows what else). They buy their way into retail with high dealer margins and slightly different models for each retailer/carrier so that the dealers/carriers push them until they are dominant.

They also form part of the supply chain for most of their competitors so they can gain an information advantage.

In the TV market I think where they really took the lead in product development was with the ability to redesign the panel packaging to use it as structure for the TV and then to design for thinner a thinner bezels.