December 06, 2007

Why Apple is Japanese


Newsweek describes the rock of innovation meeting the hard place of culture in Japan, producing a landslide of high-tech angst:

The government is gridlocked, stalling urgently needed economic reform. Managers are mired in old mentalities, while imaginative newcomers can't find the space or the capital to develop their ideas. It's a syndrome that's sometimes summed up in a single, angst-ridden question: how come we weren't the ones who invented the iPod?

The article is most on point illustrating the willingness of American companies to cross corporate boundaries to do technological mash-ups. The most recent example is the Amazon Kindle. Every reviewer agrees that Sony's ebook reader sports the better design. But Amazon's trump cards are the built-in EVDO (from Sprint) and 90,000 pre-licensed titles.

Sony's corporate philosophy, in contrast, seems to be: "Keep your hands off our stuff!" In this sense, Apple is exactly the wrong model to follow. Apple succeeds by carving out small, defensible monopolies for itself. The Switzerland of high-tech companies.

The current dominance of iTunes recalls the temporary dominance the Apple II series enjoyed on the desktop. Once Amazon and Wal-mart wean the music industry from its DRM fixation, Apple's advantage will evaporate as well. It will then either abandon its proprietary model, or as it does on the desktop, settle for a small slice of the market as a premium seller of designer goods.

Sony could easily outflank Apple, just as Microsoft did a quarter century ago. It owns the content and the hardware. But somehow Sony. Just. Can't. Bring. Itself. To. While the rest of the electronics world is eager, claims Fast Company, to glut the market with

smartphones, real-time TV, MP3/video players, cameras, GPS, and digital recorders. And [unlike Apple and Sony] the one thing all of these manufacturers have in common is their willingness to work in a world where open platforms, collaboration, and social networking are becoming ubiquitous.

Ten years go, the soft-core (and funny) anime I dream of Mimi quite accidentally captured the essence of these problems. (I review it here.) Apple is evil and American, while the giant conglomerate NEC supplies the cute, lovable (and very willing) good gals. Not-invented-here nativism as a porn plot. (Ignoring the irony that NEC computers run Windows.)

But anime itself offers a successful contrasting case in point. Although large corporations like Bandai and Pioneer have moved into the billion dollar distribution market, a great deal of original content still originates with small studios (as illustrated in Anime Runner Kuromi). Even the famed Ghibli is a garage operation compared to Disney.

The manga industry, which generates most of the new ideas used in anime, operates much like professional baseball in the U.S. Rookie artists start out in the sandlot and bush leagues and graduate to the majors. Even the major players usually remain independent contractors, working to please their fans, not under the thumb of distant corporate managers.

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