The art of creative survival

In 2006, it took on the big guys at Apple and made them pay. Following an out-of-court settlement regarding a patent lawsuit, Creative Technology Limited's gumption so vexed Steve Jobs that he famously remarked: "Creative is very fortunate to have been granted this early patent."

But the Apple CEO shouldn't be so insolent. He, of all people, should know that Creative has always had more than just luck on its side. Which is probably why, despite the $100 million (Dh367m) he had to shell out, Job's company went on to sign a deal allowing Creative to manufacture exclusive "made for iPod" accessories – thus making the Singaporean company a "partner" in the ever-competitive digital audio market space.

And according to Creative's head of operations in the Gulf, that is the direction the company would like to take.

"We thought we could work together instead of fighting," says Jordan Lee, who is also the sales manager for the region. "There came a point when we thought 'at what cost do we actually want to beat Apple?'. Apple has an excellent marketing strategy, which no other competitor has been able to match."

Lee is right. According to a recent study conducted by market research company NPD Group, Apple Inc's share of the MP3 player market is still at a massive 70 per cent, cementing the iconic iPod's standing in the digital audio player arena. While other players, including Creative, have unleashed a range of innovative products, they haven't quite figured out how to cause a dent on the Cupertino-based company's hold on the market, which is also its biggest revenue earner.

But while admitting that beating Apple is not at the top of his company's agenda, Lee says Creative is focused on bringing clever, never-before-seen designs that will enhance its customer's multimedia experience.

"We will continue to make products targeted at young, trendy people," he says. "We know what our strengths are and we will work towards giving our customers the best quality products and an excellent customer service to back it up."

That desire, says Lee, is why Creative decided to start a base here, operating out of Dubai. "We want to be close to the market – our customers, the distributors and the dealers," he says. "We have consistently performed very well in the Middle Eastern market, with our sale figures doubling every year. And we want to keep that momentum."

Lee, who has been heading the Dubai office ever since it opened in 2005, is in charge of Creative's 400-plus products available in the market.

"Half of our product range is MP3 players and digital products and that is what we want to really push here," he says.

Founded in Singapore in 1981 by CEO Sim Wong Hoo, Creative, until recently was best known for its computer peripherals and the famous Sound Blaster – sound cards which were the de facto standard for audio on computers for many years. Today, it has a host of audio systems, MP3 players, cameras and multimedia accessories in its fold.

So with Apple continuing its reign and competitors such as Microsoft's Zune gaining in popularity, how does Creative plan to stay in the reckoning in the digital audio scene? The trick, says Lee, is finding a need and introducing products to satisfy it – something the soon-to-be-launched Vado will hope to achieve. A pocket video camera, the Vado is a device that lets users take videos and then upload them directly on to the internet. Perfect for regular bloggers and YouTubers, says Lee.

But in an age where convergence is the name of the game, with mobile phones leading the way, is there really a market for stand-alone products?

"Definitely," says Lee. "I think convergence of devices almost never works. Japanese manufacturers have tried before and we've had TVs with VCRs. But a real user still prefers individual products.

"A music lover will want a good MP3 player. When you actually break down the cost and value, an individual gadget is still the best bet. So we are probably not heading towards convergence."