Why Is It So Hard to Think Different?

I’ve been having an interesting week — first, with AMD, which has returned to profitability and stopped chasing Intel’s butt to do some rather interesting different things, like merging x86 and ARM technologies. Then, with IBM which also realized that chasing Intel wasn’t doing it any good. It chose an even more unusual path for its processors, making them “open.”

Looking back at Apple’s incredible success with the iPod, iPhone and iPad, it stepped out for the iPod, creating a very different offering, and then took a cookie cutter to the smartphone and tablet market. It really only stepped out with the iPod, though, and now that the iPod cycle appears to have run out, it looks stuck.

What I find fascinating is that based on the iPod example, the only CEOs that fully emulated Jobs’ process were Jeff Bezos at Amazon and Elon Musk at Tesla.

I’ll share some thoughts on why it is so hard to step out like Jobs and Bezos did and close with my product of the week: an amazing new graphics card from AMD.

Chasing a Leader Is Safe

Generally, we see one market leader in a segment and a whole bunch of followers. One company dominates, and the rest are pale mirrors of that leader that complain a lot about how unfair it all is. IBM was likely the most obvious leader in tech through the 60s, 70s and 80s, and firms even changed their names into acronyms so they could seem more similar to the market leader.

They argued positive differentiation, but what they seemed to want to do was become IBM. Yet while it was clear what IBM had done to become leader — provide hardware and software as a complete service, and embrace the customer to be successful, which you would have thought to be table stakes — most thought that the IBM attributes were optional, and their emulations were far from perfect.

There is an old saying that prospectors get the arrows and settlers get the land. This points to the fact that leaders, to lead, have to establish a market, and that it is far easier to follow them than it is to try to blaze your own trail. If your choice is to follow, you’ll never lead — so why complain that the market is led by someone other than you?

This is like a runner whose strategy in a race is to focus on the butt of the fastest runner and then complain that the fastest runner constantly beats them. To win any race, you have to get to the goal first — not follow the leader the most effectively.

Seeing the Goal, Not the Competitor

One of the core problems is that it is really easy to see a competitor. Using the race metaphor, it generally is far easier to see the butt of the guy running in front of you than the best route to the finish line. So too in business. One of the things Jobs learned early on is that consumers generally don’t know what they want.

Think about it. Before you ever saw an iPod, iPhone or iPad, did you lust for something like that? Chances are you liked your Walkman just fine, you chased the first flip phone you ever used, because your laptop was just fine.

You were convinced to want Apple’s new devices even though the first iPods and iPhones, compared to what came later, were crap. The first iPod was big, expensive, clunky, not very sturdy, and only worked when you had a Mac you could plug it into.

Jobs saw that he was exposed if cellphones embraced and extended what the iPod could do, and so he did it first — but remember most of us at the time were just pleased as punch if the phones could do voice calls well. Playing music on them, while possible, wasn’t something we chased. Motorola and Apple’s first effort, the Rokr, broke from the iPod model and failed.

Now take a look at Tesla and Elon Musk. He literally looked at cars like Jobs must have looked at MP3 players and rightly concluded he couldn’t make an electric car like folks made gas cars and have any chance of competing with the big players.

So he pretty much took a big iPad like device wrapped with automotive technology — kind of like an app — and brought it to market as the Tesla S. It is radically different than any other car, from how it is built to how it is sold, to how it is serviced.

Musk was so good at figuring out that what we didn’t know we wanted that even without much marketing Tesla is now the electric car segment leader. Lord knows what Musk could have done had he implemented Apple-like demand generation programs. He’d likely be outselling GM by now, rather than just scaring the hell out of them.

Cheating on What’s Next

Now these guys aren’t psychic; they don’t know what the market will want next — but they are smart enough to know what the market could want next. They recognize viable potential futures and then create products enabling the future they have imagined that most benefits them.

There is another old saying that if you want to predict the future, create it. In effect Jobs, Bezos and Musk cheat, because while it looks like they must have done a ton of research to figure out what people want, they — or their people — instead look at what a market is missing that buyers might be made to want and then fulfill that need with their products. This is why they generally don’t chase others and generally are — or were — chased.

While they certainly are smart, it is their ability to imagine a successful product story and drive their firms to create it, completely, that defines them as leaders. It is the combination of the imagination to create a vision, the near-religious belief that it will come to pass, and the resources to make the vision a reality.

I actually think the CTO position may be a mistake, because it can separate the vision job from the CEO authority needed to turn the vision into a reality. Regardless of how much a CTO believes in the vision, driving that belief into the CEO — because the CTO is in a lower position — apparently is very difficult.

This is why I think Apple is now suffering. Jobs had the vision and could push it down to Cook. Cook just doesn’t have the vision — and even when he launches under Jobs’ vision, he lacks the passion Jobs had to ensure the result. He just isn’t that guy.

Wrapping Up: Think Different Formula

The steps look easy: Look at the target market; figure out what customers aren’t getting that they do or will want; build a product that encompasses all of that; and bet the farm on the result.

That is scary risky, which is why there are so few CEOs like Jobs, Bezos or Musk. Most others who aren’t leaders just prefer staring at the leader’s butts and complaining how unfair it is. It is just easier.

What IBM is doing with OpenPower and AMD with its semi-custom effort follow the think-different formula exactly; while both endeavors are risky, their leaders have decided they are tired of staring at Intel’s butt.

Product of the Week: AMD Radeon 295X2

Product of the Week

I may be a throwback, but I love to build high-performance PCs. This isn’t a cheap hobby because the parts can be wicked expensive. Now I’d avoided water cooling until a few years ago, because doing the plumbing was a pain in the butt, but a number of vendors created closed water coolers that were easy to install, so virtually everything I build is now water cooled.

The only problem has been cooling the GPU. Putting a water cooler on a GPU was a nightmare, because unlike the CPU, the GPU comes on a card and doesn’t fit in a socket you can attach a cooler to. There have been several attempts to make after-market coolers, but most are nasty to install and take up far too much room.

AMD Radeon R9 295X2 Graphics Card

AMD Radeon R9 295X2 Graphics Card

Now the reason you want a water cooler is that it tends to be quieter and it is far more efficient. When a processor gets hot, it throttles down, which means that US$500-plus card you bought starts performing like the $100-card you passed up. By the way, the same thing happens with blowers on cars, but I’ll save that for another time (I also mess with cars).

Well the impressive Radeon 295X2 has an integrated water cooler, which means you’ll actually get the performance you pay for — and at $1,500, this card isn’t cheap.

So not only is this card amazingly powerful on spec, you are far more likely to be able to get access to this power in your system. I’ve wanted a water-cooled graphics card for some time, and the AMD Radeon 295X2 is my product of the week. What makes it hot is that it’s not.

Rob Enderle

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends. You can connect with him on Google+.

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