Success through capabilities: Winning in the technology industry

Coherence between capabilities and the “way to play” is a key driver of profitability and success in the technology industry. To thrive in the coming years, tech companies will five capabilities: an understanding of what consumers want, the ability to analyze consumer data, innovation proficiency, ecosystem man¬agement, and excellence in design and user experience.

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Success through capabilities Winning in the technology industry


Beirut Gabriel Chahine Partner +961-1-985-655 gabriel.chahine Düsseldorf Roman Friedrich Partner +49-211-3890-165 roman.friedrich Madrid José Arias Partner +34-91-411-5121 j.arias

Milan Luigi Pugliese Partner +39-02-72-50-93-03 luigi.pugliese Moscow Steffen Leistner Partner +7-985-368-78-88 steffen.leistner Mumbai Jai Sinha Partner +91-22-6128-1102 jai.sinha

New York Christopher Vollmer Partner +1-212-551-6794 christopher.vollmer Paris Pierre Péladeau Partner +33-1-44-34-3074 pierre.peladeau São Paulo Ivan de Souza Senior Partner +55-11-5501-6368

Sydney Steven Hall Partner +61-2-9321-2835 steven.hall Tokyo Toshiya Imai Partner +81-3-6757-8600 toshiya.imai



About the authors

Pierre Péladeau is a partner with
Strategy& based in Paris. He works primarily in the telecommunications, media, and high-technology industries. His focus areas include strategic transformation, operating models, growth, innovation, sales and marketing, and technology strategies. Roman Friedrich is a partner with
Strategy& based in Düsseldorf
 and Stockholm. He leads the firm’s global communications, media, and technology practice, and specializes in corporate strategic transformation and digitization. Gabriel Catrina was formerly a principal with Strategy&.

This report was originally published by Booz & Company in 2013.



Executive summary

During the past several decades, the technology industry has developed one remarkably valuable innovation after another. As amazing as these products and services are, however, the evolution has been driven as much by business decisions as by technological change. Today’s industry gradually took its current form through the interaction of capabilities that leaders at different companies have devised and leveraged to transform the market. By aligning the right way of providing value with the right capabilities and the right portfolio of products and services, an elite group of companies — including Microsoft, Apple, and Google, among others — have consistently outperformed their rivals and driven progress. The mobile handset sector is a case in point: It was transformed in the early 2000s by the success of the BlackBerry, made by Research in Motion (RIM), and again in 2007 by Apple’s iPhone. By that time, however, RIM had not kept up with the capabilities that were required to win in the new market landscape — most notably a deep understanding of how to build into its devices the proper user experience beyond e-mail and messaging. Now its very survival is uncertain. This Perspective offers an analysis of the role that capabilities have played in the evolution of the tech industry, an explanation of how coherence between these capabilities and the “way to play” is a key driver of profitability and success, and a discussion of the five key capabilities that all technology companies will need to thrive in the coming years: an understanding of what consumers want, the ability to analyze consumer data, innovation proficiency, ecosystem management, and excellence in design and user experience.



Technologies and capabilities

The established view of the history of the technology industry over the past 30 years goes like this: Driven largely by Moore’s Law, technological change has, all by itself, boosted the speed, power, and usability of all manner of computing and telecom hardware, software, and systems. Companies that managed to keep ahead of the technological pack succeeded in the marketplace, while those that didn’t fell by the wayside. Thanks to these advances, billions of consumers around the world now carry around in their pockets vastly more computing power than the biggest IBM System/360 mainframe had in the 1970s. But the technology industry is also made up of businesses. In reality, the industry’s disruptions and evolution have been driven as much by the decisions of individual business leaders as by the pace of technological change. Companies including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, and Research in Motion (RIM) have played key roles, influencing the larger industry structures through the strategies they have chosen, the successes they’ve had, and even the mistakes they’ve made. These companies, and others, have each set out a game-changing “way to play” in the market — their value proposition — and then built the capabilities system and product portfolios needed to ensure that it would win in the marketplace. As they did this, they created huge new pools of value. Apple, for instance, has succeeded brilliantly as an innovator of user experience, concentrating on bringing together technologies in a consumer-focused way. By comparison, Samsung started out in the smartphone business as a fast follower, copying Apple’s products and selling them at a lower cost. But more recently, it has embarked on its own user experience innovations, with considerable success. In other words, what matters isn’t simply creating the most innovations; it’s being very clear about how you want to add value, having the right system of capabilities needed to
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innovate in line with that value proposition, and then taking those innovations to market. Innovations, patents, and technologies don’t just emerge. They are created because a company has the system of capabilities needed both to develop them and to win in the market with them. 
 For many of the companies that have been marginalized or have disappeared altogether, such as Gateway, Netscape, and Sagem, their mistake wasn’t simply losing their respective technological battles. Some stuck to old ways to play, never building the capabilities they needed to keep winning, and instead focusing on established forms of brand management or increasing scale. Others tried to shift and adapt their ways to play, but couldn’t build the capabilities they needed to turn their evolving strategies into winners in the marketplace. All the builders of the great tech companies of the past 30 years — including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Eric Schmidt, among others — have understood the factor that matters most: It is the often hidden link between rapid technological innovation and deep customer understanding. Indeed, the value of customer insight is often overlooked in technical circles. But had it not been for the prowess that the industry has developed over the decades in meeting customers’ needs and desires, one can imagine a world in which the purely technological advances we have witnessed remained devoted solely to producing esoteric systems: for instance, supercomputers used exclusively by corporations, universities, and governments, with little or none of their power trickling down into the consumer markets. Customer insight is not something that can be bought or installed on a stand-alone basis. The companies that succeed with it are those that have developed it as part of their overall business identity. It is a capability linked with other critical capabilities in a system that fits coherently with the company’s overall strategy. This type of coherence — marshaling the right strategy in alignment with the right capabilities and portfolio of products and services — is critical in all companies, but especially in today’s tech industry. Formerly distinct sectors, such as telecom, hardware, software, and games and media, are blending together through devices like smartphones and tablets. As a result, competition is becoming ever more fierce, and the strategies needed to win have become much more complicated. Every company in the industry must look closely at exactly who it is competing with and in which sectors. It must choose its way to play accordingly, based on the unique capabilities that it can
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The factor that matters most is the often hidden link between rapid technological innovation and deep customer understanding.

use to distinguish itself from competitors. Then it must further invest in these capabilities, and in the products and services that align with its chosen way to play, in order to achieve the coherence that will make it a winner in the marketplace.



Making better mobile handsets

The evolution of the mobile handset sector clearly illustrates the interplay between technological change and business model innovation. The sector had its beginnings in 1983, when the Federal Communications Commission approved Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000x, the first commercially available mobile handset based on cellular technology. But it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the sector really took off, when it agreed on a limited set of technical standards (in particular around GSM) that allowed players to provide handsets to a global market. Soon, more companies jumped into the business. These included some telecom equipment manufacturers, such as Motorola, Siemens, Alcatel, Ericsson, and Nokia, that were already supplying telecom operators with networking equipment, and some electronics companies such as Sony and Samsung. Sales boomed: In 1998, two-thirds of Motorola’s revenues were derived from handsets. In the 2000s, however, a number of early handset makers, including Alcatel, Siemens, and Sagem, dropped out of the market; others, such as Sony and Ericsson, eventually joined forces. The reason was not a lack of technical expertise; these companies didn’t have the other capabilities — proficiency in consumer marketing, ability to innovate, and the necessary understanding of how consumers actually use their devices — that most of the survivors had. Since then, the handset sector has gone through several rounds of disruption, as new players with new ways to play and new capabilities entered the market (see Exhibit 1, next page). RIM, for instance, was founded in 1995 as a supplier of pagers to Ericsson; the original BlackBerry, a two-way pager, was launched in 1999. Then came the first true BlackBerry. Released in 2003, the device combined a phone with a very effective e-mail client. RIM had put together the right type of device — an easy-to-use e-mail and voice phone that functioned securely in corporate settings — and combined it with a capabilities system, generating the coherence that gave it the right to win.

The handset sector has gone through several rounds of disruption, as new players with new ways to play and new capabilities entered the market.


Exhibit 1 A brief history of the mobile handset market
Mobile handset market maturity phases mobile penetration (in millions of subscribers)
Nascent Emerging Growing Maturing
6,600 Nokia Ericsson Siemens Samsung Sony Alcatel Sagem Motorola 214 144 90 1995 1996 1997 LG 314 1998 480 1999 721 941 Blackberry Motorola Sony ericsson 1,733 2,152 iPhone 4,016 3,352 2,740 4,651 Samsung Android HTC Nokia (windows phone) 6,013 5,376
















Traditional suppliers
– Product portfolio management – Brand management – Scale

Asian challengers
– Innovation – Brand management – Scale and low cost

2003–04 Key events
– 2003 Joint venture between Sony and Ericsson – 2004 Alcatel spins off phones in joint venture with TCL

– Niche innovation – Product design

2005–08 Key events
– 2005 Siemens sells phones to BenQ – 2008 Sagem divests phones

User experience
– Introduction of iPhone – Integrated user experience – Ecosystem management – Product design

Handset unit market share 2012

23% Others 43% 19% 8% LG Electronics 3% Apple ZTE 4%


Source: IDC; Telegeography; Strategy& analysis



The most significant disruption after the BlackBerry occurred in 2007, when Apple introduced the iPhone, which combined a phone and e-mail with powerful Web-surfing and content features. The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, just the first truly successful one — thanks not only to the product’s features but also to the very coherent system of capabilities that Apple built up to develop, distribute, and sell it, and to link it to other devices and populate it with hundreds of thousands of mobile apps. The company’s ability to understand the needs of the consumer, its obsessive attention to detail in both design and usability, and its understanding of the importance of creating an end-to-end controlled ecosystem all combined to make its new phone the most successful consumer electronics device to date. The combination of Apple’s unsurpassed supply chain capability and its ability to negotiate with operators to get favorable subsidies for its iPhones led to an enormous financial advantage over its rivals. In response to the runaway success of Apple’s iPhone, a number of other handset manufacturers have followed a similar approach, licensing Google’s Android operating system and depending on the ecosystem that has arisen to support it. So far, Samsung has been the most successful at this strategy, in part by leveraging a set of capabilities around innovation and customer understanding that is very similar to Apple’s, but mostly by developing the capability to replicate the innovations of others as a fast follower. As a result, Samsung now sells three times as many handheld devices as Apple, but Apple earns twice as much money. The two companies have viable ways to play in the market that are distinctly different from each other and require different capabilities to pull off. Samsung does not have the capabilities that Apple does to be first to market with significant user experience and product design; it is simply not equipped to succeed at that game. Meanwhile, as simple, efficient, and secure as RIM’s device was originally, the company then failed to adapt to Apple’s and Google’s disruptive changes in the mobile handset value proposition. It waited too long to build the distinguishing capabilities needed to compete with the new market leaders. And the results are well known: Apple now reaps the bulk of the profits in the sector, despite its relatively small market share (see Exhibit 2, next page). During the past two decades, the mobile handset sector has evolved toward being dominated by just a few new players — most notably Apple and Samsung — all of which have created the capabilities needed to win in the sector. This is just as true in personal computers and telecom equipment manufacturing. Unlike handsets, however, these latter two sectors are now fully commoditized, with only a handful of long-standing players left in each — for example,
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Exhibit 2 Market profiles of Apple, Samsung, and RIM
Unit sales evolution
Units (in millions)
400 350 300 250 200 150 100 50 0 35 25

EBIT Evolution
US$ (in billions)


55 45



15 5



-5 -15







2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012

Share of global unit sales, Q2 2012

Share of operating profits, Q2 2012
RIM 0% Samsung Others
3% 20%




2% RIM 77%



*Annualized estimates Source: IDC; Gartner; Bloomberg; Asymco; AllThingsD; Apple; RIM; Strategy& analysis



HP and Dell in PCs, and Cisco Systems and Ericsson in telecom equipment — and they are carving up their respective markets based on price and services, not on the strength of their technology.



The power of coherence

Over time, a variety of ways to play have emerged throughout the tech industry, some more successful in the long term than others. Each of these ways to play depends on a set of distinctive capabilities that distinguishes the companies using it from most of their competitors. Manufacturers of mobile devices, for example, all generally adopt one of four distinctive ways to play — technology innovator, user experience innovator, fast follower, and focused innovator — each of which involves its own distinctive system of capabilities (see Exhibit 3, next page). Companies using any of these ways to play can succeed in the market. Some may dominate their chosen sector, while others become profitable niche players. In every case, the key to success has been coherence: the extent to which a company’s value proposition (its way to play), its capabilities, and its products and services fit together in a single strategy. To test the power of coherence, we determined a coherence score for a variety of players in the tech industry (a combination of their capabilities rating and their product and services fit), and then plotted that against their performance over time (see “Methodology,” page 14). The results show that, in this industry, performance is indeed correlated with coherence (see Exhibit 4, page 15). The example of RIM clearly illustrates both the importance of finding a good match between internal capabilities and external market needs, and the need to enhance capabilities in line with market evolution. For years, RIM succeeded quite nicely as a focused innovator, catering to the enterprise market with the BlackBerry. Its system of capabilities was coherent, given its market positioning, and it was quite profitable during the late 2000s, as Exhibit 4 demonstrates. Ironically, however, the moment it seemed like its device was going to break out into the consumer market was the moment of RIM’s greatest danger. It tried to expand beyond its role as a niche player, but it did not have the capabilities needed to do so. When the iPhone came along to tap into that same market, Apple, it turned out, had real advantages that RIM lacked: in focused product launches (with very few, very
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Exhibit 3 Four ways to play in the mobile handset sector

Technology innovator
Focuses on product features and performance, supported by deep quality across portfolio
Key characteristics

User experience innovator
Innovates with superior user experience

Fast follower
Challenges a specific segment or area at lower cost on par with innovation – Focuses on specific innovation at optimal costs and operational management – Offers a price advantage – Possesses strong product and offer management

Focused innovator
Plays in selected niche segment or product area

– Focuses on device and software integration – Offers an end-to-end customer experience – Provides a broad product portfolio – Tries to build long-standing relationships

– Acts as design leader – Offers a superior endto-end user experience – Possesses a strong brand – Manages ecosystem

– Leads innovation in its niche – Keeps strong product and offer management – Has a brand leadership – Tries to build long-standing relationships

Right to win capability (high relevance)

Quality excellence Breadth of product and service portfolio Scale and global presence Brand leadership Customer management and service excellence

User experience capabilities Design leadership Innovation leadership Ecosystem management Brand leadership Customer management and service excellence Product and offer management Quality excellence

Product and offer management Cost-focused operational excellence Price advantage Innovation expertise Financing capabilities Brand leadership

Innovation leadership Product and offer management Brand leadership Ecosystem management User experience capabilities Design leadership End-to-end delivery capabilities

Right to compete capability (lower relevance)

Innovation leadership Financing capabilities Price advantage

Nokia (pre-Microsoft)

Apple, Nokia/Microsoft, Samsung

HTC, Huawei

Motorola Mobility, RIM, Sony

Source: Strategy& analysis



Our study of how capabilities and coherence have affected the evolution of the technology industry is based on an analysis of a selected group of companies in two major sectors of the industry: handheld devices and telecom equipment. Once the companies were chosen, we benchmarked each company in terms of profitability, revenue development, and total shareholder return. At the same time, we identified the different ways to play in the tech industry and developed a set of capabilities required for success in each of them. Then we assessed the coherence of each company’s chosen way to play, its capabilities system, and its product and service portfolio. This analysis provided us with a coherence score for each company, which we then mapped to each of the three performance measures. That enabled us to develop a coherence premium for each company — the degree to which its coherence drives financial performance.



Exhibit 4 The coherence premium for selected companies in the mobile handset sector
Average EBITDA % (2005–11)
40 35 30 25 20 15 10 5 0 -5 -10 -15 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100 Motorola Sony Ericsson LG Apple Samsung HTC R2=0.83 RIM

EBITDA margin (%) (2011)
40 35 30 25 20 15 10 5 0 -5 -10 -15 -20 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100 Sony Ericsson Motorola Nokia HTC LG R2=0.88 Apple Samsung RIM

Coherence score %

Coherence score %

Notes: EBIT used instead of EBITDA for Huawei and Sony Ericsson. The size of the bubbles represent relative 2011 revenues. Source: CapitalIQ; Bloomberg; Strategy& analysis



carefully timed products); in market sensing and consumer insight across more ways of using smartphones than just e-mail and messaging; and in consumer retail (including its own stores). It’s easy to say, in retrospect, that RIM is suffering now because its leaders were complacent in the late 2000s. But when you look at RIM’s early attempts to build an ecosystem around applications, it is clear that the company’s problems stemmed from a lack of the capabilities that Apple, Samsung (leveraging Android), and other players had in product design, end-to-end management of their ecosystems and applications, and usability. With its new operating system and other features, RIM is now trying to catch up to the changed market. The future will tell us if the company has mastered the capabilities it needs to be successful today.



Winning in the future

The role of coherence and capabilities in driving change in the technology industry is not likely to diminish anytime soon. As technology continues to evolve, technology players must keep seeking out and building new capabilities and ways to play that will give them the right to win in ever-changing markets. It may be that Nokia and RIM will develop the capabilities they need to regain their previous positions in their respective markets. Meanwhile, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, all of which are trying to enter the device space in one form or another, also have a chance to align their new products and capabilities to the way they want to play in the market. But that will happen only if they put it all together coherently, as they have in the past. Not all capabilities deserve the same consideration, but there are at least five that every company in the technology industry needs now. They might be called “table stakes,” and they can be seen as prerequisites to enter the game. These capabilities will evolve further as the technology industry continues to mature, but they will remain important. At the same time, the way that they are incorporated, and the relative emphasis they receive, will vary by enterprise, depending on the company’s chosen way to play. 1. Understanding of what consumers want: On one level, this involves gaining an intimate understanding of how customers interact with their mobile devices — whether they are communicating through voice, text, or video; consuming content in text, sound, and video formats; or producing content with text, presentations, photos, and videos. On another level, it requires an understanding of the multitude of potential new uses offered by devices linked to each other and to sensors. A single mobile handset device can provide consumers with dozens of new tools for enhancing health and well-being, socializing and entertainment, and navigation and exploration. In that context, is there still a market for mobile devices with just two or three features? Only deep consumer insight can provide the kind of answer that would enable a potential niche player to thrive in the future.

Not all capabilities deserve the same consideration, but there are at least five that every company in the technology industry needs now.


2. Ability to analyze consumer data: Companies looking to drive further innovation in use cases and other key mobile areas must learn to capture and analyze all manner of data about who their users are and how they use their devices and services. This includes data at the hardware level, such as location, calling patterns, and interfaces with sensors and other devices; transactional data, such as that about application and service usage, as well as app-store and in-app purchases; and data about the context in which devices are used, such as time, location, and customer profiles. Identity information is critical to manage user access and billing relationships; to improve the customer experience; to develop new products, services, and features; to enable new business models; and to engage with other ecosystem players. 3. Innovation proficiency: This includes the capacity to innovate quickly. It means developing new ways for users to communicate and interact with the digital world through the launch of new devices, features, and specific services that will shape industry evolution, including those related to financial transactions and shopping. Leadership in innovation is based on a deep understanding of the future applications and use cases of smart mobile devices and sensors, and on the intelligence captured through usage and contextual data about how consumers currently use their devices and services. It also requires the ability to secure the intellectual property and patents that may be needed to sustain differentiation based on technical and functional innovation over time, and erect barriers to entry by other players. 4. Ecosystem management: All companies, even those with vertically integrated business models, must develop an internal ecosystem to manage the end-to-end customer experience, and the means to interact with and leverage partner and external ecosystems. Critical will be the ability to orchestrate open innovation and create a sustainable model that attracts developers who can enrich the platform and the customer experience through new applications and services. This is what Apple has put together so successfully with the iOS ecosystem of devices (iPod, iPhone, iPad) in combination with its app store, and Google has done with Android, which Samsung and others have leveraged to create value around their own devices. Microsoft is hoping to create a similar device-oriented ecosystem through its new operating system, offered on smartphones made by Nokia and HTC, while RIM (now called BlackBerry) is taking the same approach with its BlackBerry 10. 5. Excellence in design and user experience: As more and more aspects of our lives become increasingly digitized, the most important
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capability will likely be the ability to design and deliver a compelling and usable user experience on a wide variety of devices — both current and yet to be invented. This must be founded on a deep understanding of how people interact with technology, in combination with strong design expertise and high quality.



The right stuff

The technology industry continues to be driven by Moore’s Law. Processors will keep getting smaller and more powerful, processing power will become cheaper, solid-state data storage prices will keep dropping, radio communication chips will consume less and less power, and batteries will last longer. Meanwhile, new challengers will continue to enter the market. Recently, for instance, two Chinese companies, Huawei and ZTE, introduced innovative Android-based smartphones at a very low cost, in direct competition with the established players. In short, communications and computational power — the technological underpinning of the industry — is becoming increasingly commoditized. As it does, success in the technology sector will become even more dependent on choosing the right capabilities in support of the right way to play, and determining which products and services best suit that way to play. Ultimately, there is no reason to suppose that the winning products and services will resemble the devices with which we are so familiar today. Computational power and connectivity will become simply another feature in all kinds of consumer and commercial products — from industrial sensors to appliances to clothing. Google Glass, with its built-in computer, heads-up display, and Internet connection, is an early start in this direction. And a company called Senseg has developed a technology that allows users to feel different textures as they move their fingers across their smartphone screens. These technological innovations, however, are ultimately less influential over the shape of the industry than their developers’ ability to combine the capabilities needed to conceive of them and turn them into winners in the marketplace. Companies looking to stay competitive and to outperform in the future, therefore, need to take several steps to prepare themselves to gain the right to win: • Identify a compelling way to play that can win in the market but doesn’t require a major move away from their current capabilities;



• Understand which capabilities will support that way to play and drive differentiation in the market, which of them they already possess, and the gaps they need to fill; • Adapt their organizations to nurture the essential capabilities they already have, and disinvest in the ones that will not be critical; • Identify the elements of their value chain that they need to control to establish sustainable differentiation, and invest in building or acquiring them; and • Align their service and product portfolios with their chosen way to play and their capabilities so they can deliver superior performance over time.




The technology industry has been a major driver of value and economic growth over the past several decades, and it will likely remain so. Companies will continue to develop new technologies and new ways to interest consumers in using those technologies. The key to success will be understanding what those consumers want, and then creating the best ways to give it to them. Matching deep customer understanding with the right user experience will always be critical for achieving the right to play. Whether it will also bestow the right to win will depend on the company’s ability to build coherence by aligning the value proposition of a way to play with a distinctive group of capabilities that no one else, not even a technology innovator, can match.



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