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Ally or Acquire? Case Studies of Compaq and Cisco as Additional Tests of the External Technology Life Cycle Model

By Edward B. Roberts and Kathy Wenyun Liu


In our first paper we proposed a dynamic theory relating alliances and acquisitions to the evolution of a technology and the market it serves. Industry structure and critical success factors change as the underlying technology evolves from phase to phase, competitive pressures exerted on a firm vary, and companies respond by adopting changing approaches to inter- firm collaboration. During the fluid phase new technology companies often form marketing alliances with established technology firms and pursue an aggressive licensing strategy to gain market recognition. The proliferation of technology startups provides an opportunity for established technology companies to obtain new technologies or enter niche markets through acquisitions or minority equity investments. Anticipating the emergence of a dominant design, companies can form standards alliances to promote their own proprietary technologies. During the transitional phase, companies with dominant designs gain recognition from the stock market, and soaring stock prices make it possible for them to acquire some of their competitors. During the mature phase, technology is well defined and competition becomes intense. Companies can form technology alliances to cut R&D costs. If a particular technology cannot be developed in-house, companies can acquire it on the open market. Marketing alliances frequently help companies target latent markets and expand into new geographic markets. During the phase of technological discontinuities the market is invaded by new technologies. Incumbents can utilize their resources to acquire the technologies needed for the newly defined marketplace. Attackers can gain market recognition through forming strategic supply alliances with established technology companies, which for the attackers is akin to the fluid phase behavior described above. In that first paper we illustrated these phenomena with a detailed case study of Microsoft, the world's leading software firm, from its origins until 2000. In this paper we further examine this hypothesized technology life cycle model through additional case studies of two high-tech companies during the same time period as the Microsoft analysis (i.e., until the year 2000): Compaq Computer and Cisco Systems. Compaq Computer was then the No.1 personal computer (PC) manufacturer in the world and is now a major portion of HP Corporation, and Cisco Systems was and still is the leading computer networking company. Each of these companies faced unique challenges at each stage of development of its underlying technologies and markets, which in turn affected its choice and extent of use of collaborative strategies. The additional case studies illustrate varying degrees of concurrence with the hypothesized dynamic model, and raise new issues for theory building. Each company's history is synopsized at the end of this paper in accord with the technology life cycle theoryExternal Technology Life Cycle Model, Compaq Computer, Cisco Systems,

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