Friday, August 05, 2011

Consumer electronics' U.S. renaissance

There was a time, before World War II, when the U.S. was the undisputed world leader in consumer electronics. U.S. manufacturers, led by RCA, dominated world markets. However, U.S. manufacturers' operations in Japan and most of Europe were nationalized at the start of WWII. More importantly, RCA discounted the value of transistors in consumer electronic design after the war. Japanese manufacturers licensed transistor technology from Bell Labs and used it to build smaller, less expensive and more reliable products. That spelled the beginning of the end for the U.S. consumer electronics business.

At one time, companies like RCA, Westinghouse, Zenith, Philco, Magnavox, Sylvania and Motorola were household names. Now, only Motorola is still in consumer electronics, with its mobile phones. RCA, Westinghouse and Sylvania are nothing more than trademarks licensed to other companies, Zenith was acquired by South Korea's LG Electronics, and Philco & Magnavox were acquired by Philips. Until the late 1990s, the U.S. consumer electronics business was effectively dead. Today, however, there's a resurgence in U.S. consumer electronics.

The leader of this renaissance is Apple, which has dominated the personal media player market for almost a decade with its iPods. Foreign manufacturers have tried to wrestle market share away from Apple's iPods, without success. As of last quarter, Apple became the world's largest seller of smartphones, and it's been the leader in tablets since the launch of the iPad. Apple also dominates music sales through iTunes. Apple TV is Apple's only consumer electronics product that's struggling in the marketplace (although no one in the over-the-top set-top box market has yet found a winning formula.)

Apple doesn't manufacture any of its hardware products; it designs the products and farms out manufacture to Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers. Vizio has applied the same formula to HDTVs, and either leads the market for LCD HDTVs or is close to the top every quarter. Vizio's aggressive pricing strategy has helped to force Sony out of the TV manufacturing business, and is pushing other Japanese and South Korean manufacturers to rethink their HDTV market strategies.

Sonos came from nowhere to become the leader in wireless networked home audio systems. Sonos applies an Apple-like design philosophy to its products, and has steadily expanded its product line both up and down to cover a variety of price points. Roku licensed a streaming media player originally developed in-house at Netflix and has become the leader in the market for those devices, at very aggressive price points: When Logitech launched its Google TV-based Revue set-top box at $299, the least expensive Roku player was $59.99. Now, the price of the Revue has been cut to $99 (the same price as Roku's top-of-the-line model) in order to clear out an apparently massive inventory of the devices.

It's true that U.S. companies are nowhere near recapturing the share of the consumer electronics market that they had before the 1970s, but if anyone had predicted any resurgence of U.S. consumer electronics companies even ten years ago, they'd have been laughed out of the room. The ability to anticipate (and drive) consumer desires, together with leveraging Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturing resources, is allowing U.S. companies to compete on equal footing with companies that could have crushed them only a few years ago.
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