I strongly recommend David Aaker’s blog post on the importance of TIMING to the success of Apple’s iPod, “Why wasn’t the iPod a Sony brand?”: WhyNotSony
As David relates, Sony had launched two digit players two years earlier, but the technology was not yet right. Apple launched when affordable flash memory was available.
A follow-up question is why wasn’t Sony still trying? The company had been built on successful waves of portable, personal music: (1) the transistor radio, (2) radio Walkman, (3) cassette Walkman, (4) CD Walkman. Sony knew that the digital flash player was inevitable, had been willing to change to new technologies before, and must have viewed personal portable music as a core business: shouldn’t Sony have continued incremental improvements (ala Microsoft) until they finally had a decent offering?
In response to my question and those from others @DavidAaker suggested that likely difficulties included (1) Sony not being as “Open” as apple to technology from Toshiba, (2) iPod was a new business model not just a new technology or product, and (3) the guys down the hall (the hilariously mismanaged Sony entertainment).
Points (2) and (3) fit perfectly in Christensen’s analysis of disruptive innovation. Christensen’s early focus was on disruptive technology but in later writings stated that more often it was the business model rather than the technology that was truly disruptive. A big driver of inertia or blindness towards a disruptive model is love for current business and fear of cannibalizing revenues.
The iPod model supported (1) playing “stolen” music and (2) disintermediating albums to allow users to buy only tracks they enjoyed. Both threatened Sony Entertainment. So while a big factor in the success of the iPod was timing, a big factor in Sony not being there was simply:
It’s hard to be a Cannibal!