Sunday 11 January 2009

How a Singaporean declared war on the iPod - and lost

Apple CEO Steve Jobs revealed last week that he has a “hormonal imbalance” (notice the incredulous quote marks) which was blamed for his scary weight loss in the past year.

How will this affect the iPod maker’s future? At least one prominent Singaporean will be watching closely.

Whenever anyone talks about Singapore entrepreneurship, one name will invariably be brought up – Sim Wong Hoo, founder and CEO of Creative Technology, which launched its new Zii chip a few days ago at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas amid much self-manufactured hype.

Four years ago, the man fell for his own hype.

“The MP3 war has started and I am the one who has declared war,” he announced in November 2004. Infamous last words.

At the time, Creative’s Zen MP3 player was second only to Apple’s iPod in market share. “It’s our target to beat iPod in this quarter,” Mr Sim said.

What bravado! What chutzpah! What moxie!

A diploma holder from Ngee Ann Poly taking on Steve Jobs himself – a high school drop-out.

Mr Sim even dismissed the just released original iPod Shuffle as “a big let-down for the whole industry” and added that Apple was at “square one” while Creative was at “square 100”.

Fast forward to present day.

Needless to say, Apple remains top banana in the MP3 player market, leaving Zen to scramble for scraps with other iPod-killer wannabes like Microsoft’s Zune and Sony’s re-imagined Walkman.

According to Creative’s latest annual report, its workforce has been cut by 47 per cent in the last fiscal year. Casualties of a war that the company itself declared four years ago?

In a message to shareholders, Mr Sim thanked them for their “patience with Creative”. What? No more warmongering against companies named after fruit?

Actually, we don’t really hear much from Mr Sim nowadays. In recent times, the multi-millionaire has delegated the role of Creative’s frontman to the company’s president and COO, Mr Craig McHugh, an American – like Steve Jobs!

Because the Apple founder was one reason Creative never had a chance in the “MP3 war”.

With his black mock-turtleneck, blue jeans, sneakers and cult of personality, Jobs looks like a hip liberal arts professor you could hang out and discuss sex, drugs and rock and roll with.

Mr Sim, on the other hand, looks like the uncle in your neighbourhood traditional Chinese medicine shop dispensing ginseng and fungus to your grandmother.

Who would you rather buy a music player from?

If only Mr Sim had worn a mock-turtleneck back in 2004, the world could’ve been a very different place today.

- Published in The New Paper, 11 January 2009

UPDATE: Steve Jobs died in October 2011