Rare is the long-established company willing to consistently challenge the status quo. At this point, though, that's Ford (F) and the central element to understanding the carmaker going forward is to get a bead on its willingness to buck convention.
Dashboard information and entertainment might be shifting from Sirius (SIRI) to plain-old Siri, as Apple (AAPL) turns its back on Google (GOOG) to pair with Garmin (GRMN) for mapping products inside General Motors (GM), Toyota (TM) and Honda (HMC) cars. Once Apple is inside of cars on a formalized basis, you can expect their tentacles to expand. Before long, Siri will be doing everything but cleaning your carburetor. And Ford? Unlike the other carmakers, they are turning their back on Apple. Once again, they stand alone as conscientious objector -- just as they did when the government was doling out bailout money with a ladle.
In both cases, Ford was taking inordinate, if highly calculated, risks. But that's the point. Is there a company out there -- Oracle (ORCL) perhaps -- that is as big and takes such sizeable risks to go its own way?
The other U.S. automakers could have surpassed Ford with the aid of the government and still might. Ford, though, saw opportunity in a go-it-alone approach and has, to a degree that is hard to measure and might not last with an American public that has the concentration span of a June bug, built good will. Here, they see opportunity in high-end, high-margin dashboard add-ons that they don't want to farm out to some computer nerds from Cupertino. Again: risky.
It is hardly hyperbole to say that as a giant contrarian, Ford is close to one-of-a-kind. That is endlessly fascinating, which is fortunate, because they've set themselves up on a big risk-big reward trajectory.
And that's why, no matter how much you instinctively admire Ford for striking out on their own in an age of corporate conformity and imitation, you have to tread carefully. Individualism alone does not earn points. Ford's decision to forgo federal money seemed noble at the time, but is largely forgotten. Meanwhile, competition has been gaining. Since the dawn of the iPod, car owners have naturally-and increasingly-been bringing their Apple products along for the ride. They've never been enamored of the high-priced, faulty automaker programming. Ford wants to fight that? Noble, but as hard as it sometimes is, don't buy the stock for nobility alone.