Does Sony Still Matter?

Written by Alex Watson

May 31, 2009 | 12:33

Tags: #ceo #innovation

Companies: #japan #sony

The first time I went to Japan, in Spring 2002, the Sony Building was high up on my list of places to visit. Six floors of space set in a classic 1960s skyscraper in Tokyo’s wealthy Ginza district, the Sony Centre is a showcase for the company’s brand, image and values, as well as its new technologies and products.

When I visited, dark, moodily lit corridors swept me to an audio playback lounge with towering speakers, rooms full of astoundingly slim laptops, and of course, saving the best till last, there was a pen full of yapping AIBOs to watch.

Despite the fact I’ve been back to Japan several times since then, I’ve never returned to the Sony Building. I enjoyed my visit a lot, but each time I’ve been in Tokyo, a visit there has seemed less relevant, less necessary, less worthwhile. It struck me that perhaps this says something about Sony itself, and makes me wonder whether it’s true to say that Sony doesn’t matter anymore.
By ‘doesn’t matter’, what I mean is not that I’m expecting Sony to diminish greatly in size. You’ll still see the Sony logo prominently whenever shopping for electronics; it will still spend big money on advertising. What I mean is that I’m increasingly doubting whether Sony is still capable of producing landmark products like the original Walkman and the PlayStation and PlayStation 2.

Does Sony Still Matter?
The Sony building in Ginza, Tokyo

I’m like most technology journalists, I suspect, in having something of a soft spot for Sony. In part this comes from a general fondness for Japanese engineering, and knowledge of the company’s tremendous history, and also its tendency to throw massive launch parties in ridiculously trendy venues that I’d normally never stand a chance of getting in to. The goodwill also comes from the fact that when you spend your days reviewing tech, you often come across products which are cheap, nasty and slapdash, and Sony kit tends to be made to a higher standard – it isn’t a company that’s afraid of luxury.

However, I’ve felt for a while that although its products have never stopped being nicely designed and packaged, they’re not innovative any more. If you think of the key technology products of the last few years that were invented, how many came from Sony first? (Incidentally, this isn’t a rhetorical question – suggestions welcome, and no Blu-Ray doesn’t count. The key word is ‘key’).

Netbooks are a good example of the company’s problems: Sony could easily have built the first netbook, but didn't because it was afraid of cannibalizing the profits it made on its pricy but gorgeous ultra-portable laptops. It left a big gap in the market for cheap laptops primarily used for browsing the web. Taiwanese firms spotted the gap, and when Sony did try and make a netbook, it couldn’t swallow its pride and turned out the terribly compromised P-series. I don’t think I need to go over its failure to make a competitive MP3 Walkman and how the iPod came to dominate the market, but given the lead Sony had over Apple in mobile phones (i.e. Sony actually made them before 2007), how did Sony let Apple repeat the success of the iPod with the iPhone? There's no sign of a real iPhone rival from Sony either - it's the Palm Pre and Nokia's music phones which are shaping up to be Apple's true competitors.

I think you can trace a lot of the rot back to the PSP, and I’m not just saying this because I paid to import a Japanese PSP on launch date. Well, alright, I am in part. But my point stands. Lauded by the company as the walkman of the 21st century, it was actually walkman for the future designed with a 1980s mindset. Lumbered with UMD, games that cost as much as PS2 titles, a sub-standard interface that made it terrible for playing music, a form-factor that was too big for the pocket and too small for decent control buttons and absolutely no useful software to allow you to get movies and music on to it, the PSP is one of the worst tech products I’ve ever bought.

Over the nearly five years I’ve had it, I’ve probably played only three or four interesting games on it. The games catalogue attempted to reproduce PS2-style titles, which proved a complete anathema to what you want from a portable system. The iPhone nailed it: games are cheap, they load quickly, you can play them in little bites. The system is small and portable and everything works wirelessly – no disks, no fussing.

Essentially, the problem with the PSP is that while its outward, physical design was appealing, what we could perhaps call its inner design – the thoughts, aims and guiding philosophy that lead to its creation – were hopelessly outmoded. This is arguably true of the PlayStation 3 and the P-series, and it’s what lead me to the title of this post.

In one of my previous blog entries, we looked at tech CEOs who deserved to be fired, and I wrote that the jury was out on Sony’s head, Sir Howard Stringer. He is however, perhaps the CEO with the biggest problem to address.

I have no doubt Sony will continue to produce great looking LCD TVs, slender laptops and a whole range of other attractive tech products. I do however, have serious doubts that any of these will be as special as the company’s designs of the 70s, 80s and 90s.
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