updated 07:24 am EDT, Sun September 15, 2013
A spate of interesting and innovative products from Sony bodes well
Corporate strategies are a dime a dozen, so when Sony CEO Kaz Hirai unveiled his 'One Sony' vision people would have been right to view it with a healthy dose of scepticism. It certainly sounded good on paper, but "the proof of the pudding is in the tasting" as the saying goes. If there ever was a company that was crying out for a much more integrated and cohesive approach to its devices and services strategy, it is Sony, a company long viewed to be comprised of fractured and fragmented divisions often pitted against each other, rather than working together harmoniously. It must have been hard to swallow as Sony watched Apple take its crown as the maker of the coolest and most lusted after tech gadgets on the planet.
During the 2000s, the tectonic shift that took place is no more apparent than in the way the Walkman faded from view to be replaced by the iPod. It is now hard to imagine a world where it was once the 'Walkman' brand that was synonymous for any music playing device, but that is how it once was when Sony was at the top consumer electronics company in the world. Instead, even as the iPod slowly fades away thanks to the convergence of MP3 players with smartphones, people still often refer to purpose made music devices as 'iPods.' Yet, if there was any company in the world that could have beaten Apple to the punch with the combined iPod and iTunes devices and services phenomenon, it was Sony.
Sony was in the unique position of not only making its own devices and customized software, but it also owned the rights to an extensive range of entertainment content through Sony Pictures and Sony Music, along with its PlayStation franchise (which like Microsoft's Xbox franchise, is the one area where the two tech titans have remained relevant in the influential minds of the younger generation of gadget lovers). However, Sony lacked a grand unifying vision of how to tie it all together and stood by and watched as Apple began selling Sony content which was listened to and viewed by millions upon millions of users on Apple's iPods, iPhones and iPads -- not Sony devices. Perhaps even more humiliatingly, Sony ended up playing second fiddle selling as part of Apple's wider third-party devices ecosystem making iPod and iPhone compatible docks.
It wasn't just Apple, of course, that helped to see Sony fade from the forefront of innovation. Korean companies like Samsung and LG were simultaneously attacking Sony on different fronts including Sony's critically important Home Entertainment division, which includes its television business, which has been haemorrhaging cash. The reality is though, companies as large and complex as Sony are not agile, and like large tankers at sea, can be very hard to manoeuvre thanks to organizational inertia. However Sony, first under the leadership of Sir Howard Stringer, and now Kaz Hirai at the helm, may have finally corrected its course and is now on the right path to reclaiming its past glories.
Sony's mantra for its product launches in 2013 has been all about its consumer electronics devices representing "the best of Sony." Its consumer electronics devices in 2013 have been much more focused in execution and now integrated proprietary Sony technologies from across its business portfolio. As a point of convergence, Sony's 2013 smartphones have been the best examples of this, none more so than the recently announced Sony Xperia Z1. According to reports, the "1" in Z1 is supposed to reflect the fact that this device more than any to date is the embodiment of Kaz Hirai's "One Sony" philosophy. It's hard to argue with that claim. It incorporates classic Sony style in its design and quality of build materials, while it also centers on a 1080p Triluminos display technology drawn from its television division, and features a 20.7-megapixel camera with Exmor RS sensor and Bionz image processing technology from its imaging division. Also integrated seamlessly into the device is Sony's Walkman branding, which is making a comeback, as is its wider and much better integrated entertainment services under the umbrella of the Sony Entertainment Network. The device is also "PlayStation Certified," although that side of things isn't yet up to scratch with the best games for its devices still found on the Google Play store.
Coupled with the resurgence of Sony in the mobile devices space has been a recent surge of innovation not seen from the company in many years. The company's product announcements at IFA and over the past few weeks also show and inventiveness and vision that has not been seen from Sony in some time. Its unusual new 'camera lens' products, the DSC-QX100 and DSC-QX10 reveal that Sony is again willing to take some risks with design and innovation. Its new Vaio Fit Multi-Flip Windows 8 notebook, Xperia Z Ultra 6.4-inch phablets and the announcement of the new PS Vita TV for Asian markets (at least initially) are further examples that Sony is starting to fire on all cylinders in the consumer electronics space once again.
The PS Vita TV is a new focal point for Sony technology in the lounge room that potentially has widespread appeal as both a standalone device, and a device that could be the hub for all things Sony in the household of millions of people. Not only does the PS Vita TV leverage the untapped potential of a device like the Apple TV (from a gaming perspective), it also leverages Sony's profitable Sony Entertainment Network, its PlayStation franchise including the PS Vita and the upcoming PlayStation 4, its smartphone efforts, and potentially its television and home theatre businesses as well. Even better still, it costs the equivalent of just $95, meaning that unlike some Sony technology in the past, it is widely accessible to consumers. Sony hasn't yet committed to bringing the PS Vita TV to North American and US markets, but it quite likely the company will wait until the dust has settled following the impending launch of the critical, and impressive, PlayStation 4.
Sony's recent spate of innovative products counts for naught if it isn't reflected in its financial performance. In this pivotal metric too, Sony is also starting to get things right. After shedding unprofitable businesses, tightening its product lines and refocusing its efforts with better vertical and horizontal integration, Sony's bottom line is starting to improve as well. With Sony starting to really get it right with its devices and services, Kaz Hirai's "One Sony" corporate strategy is starting to look like a lot more than simply words on a page. It is becoming a living thing, which is being reflected where it counts. Sony is doing everything it can to win back the hearts and minds of consumers in the best way that it can - by producing some really cool and interesting devices. It's been a long time since I've been genuinely excited by the broader Sony product portfolio, but the company has certainly succeeded in getting my attention back.
By Sanjiv Sathiah