Where do I start? The Sony PRS-300 and the first steps in diagnosing strategy


 Shortly after its introduction a few years ago I bought a Sony ‘Pocket’ e-reader. It wasn’t a first-generation device by any means, but at the time the Kindle hadn’t reached Europe, the iPad was some way off, and I almost never bumped into other e-reader users, so I was some kind of early-ish adopter.

These days I make day-to-day use of an iPad with a Kindle App, and other tablet/e-reader users are ubiquitous, but the Sony still fills it’s original purpose in my life: holiday reading. 

It’s completely a one-trick pony. No keyboard, no highlighting facility, hopeless at displaying graphics, no wireless capability, no touch screen. But it is compact and light, the lack of wi-fi results in a long battery life, and the non-compromised screen is perfectly readable in the harsh sunlight of a Greek summer or Canarian winter. It is, in other words, all but perfect for the purpose I acquired it. 

Originally it would also accompany me on business trips, but the infinitely more versatile iPad soon usurped it (along with my suddenly cumbersome laptop). The fact that it fit into my suit pocket was no advantage – I was almost always carrying a laptop bag (sans laptop), the latter having long since replaced my briefcase. 

So what?

A question I often see arise is something like: ‘What are the best tools for analysing and developing strategy?’ Cue a heated debate on whether Michael Porter is hopelessly out of date (he isn’t) or whether ‘blue ocean strategy’ is better (overblown title, but it’s not a case of either/or anyway). The only consistent answer I can come up with is ‘I don’t know, but I do know it’s not a spreadsheet…’

There are a good number of genuinely useful strategy models out there, but I rarely know which I’m going to use in advance. Trying to use a whole suite of them in some kind of standardised, cookie-cutter methodology is just a recipe for honouring the models at the expense of insight. The most useful tools usually become obvious once we’re rolling. 

So where do we start?

Sometimes that’s also obvious, but if it’s not I’ll usually start by looking at the product, how and why it is valued by customers (and rejected by non-customers) and, in particular, how (or if) it is differentiated in such a way to as to demand some level of trade-off in the business model producing it. From here we can work our way inwards to the business and it’s supply chain, and outwards to the environment, using whatever models, if any, seem the most useful.

So as an example, the Sony PRS-300 has to make design trade off’s to meet my needs. The iPad, earlier Kindles, and even the more expensive and feature-rich Sony products cannot match the screen clarity and battery life I demand. They cannot compete anywhere near as effectively for my particular niche requirement (neither can paper books). So we have the bones of a potentially defensible competitive advantage based on ‘focussed differentiation’. It’s a starting point.

 This doesn’t tell me anything about whether Sony planned for or would even recognise this positioning. The fact that they’ve dubbed it the ‘Pocket’ suggests not. It doesn’t tell me anything about whether that niche can support an economic return. It doesn’t tell me whether a unique set of activities is required to produce this type of differentiation. And it doesn’t tell me whether the new-generation, pared down Kindle is going to eat it for lunch (although I think I can hazard a fairly good guess at that one).

But it is a start.

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