The IFA trade show in Berlin has been a gadget lover’s dream, with a number of large companies announcing their upcoming products. Some of us are forced to catch these announcements via laptop displays and RSS feeds, but the buffet of consumer electronic goodness is just as delicious from thousands of miles away.
Many eyes are on the just-beaten Samsung, but perhaps no other company has more riding on this event than Sony, the once-proud Japanese manufacturer that has dominated a variety of industries since its inception. One only need look at the products announced today – a camera line, a new series of smartphones, a tablet, a “tabletop” PC, a television, a tablet/ultrabook hybrid, and more – to see that Sony has spread its focus across every consumer product category imaginable.
An older generation may be most familiar with Sony because of the Walkman, a portable music player synonymous with the category, until the iPod came around. My generation is probably most familiar with the PlayStation brand, which drove the video game industry from the cartridge-based format of the 80s to the disc-based systems that we have today.
This spread – from music player to game console – at once exemplifies Sony’s wide-ranging product lines and the company’s seemingly-lost ability to define every market it enters.
It’s been a rough couple of years for Sony. Between a series of hackings targeting the company’s PlayStation Network, the vortex of negative press that accompanied them, and ever-declining financials, the decades-old company has been battered and beaten by modern times.
“Sony will change. I am fully committed to making this happen,” Sony’s president and CEO Kazuo Hirai said in the company’s 2012 financial reports. “By furthering the integration of hardware and entertainment — the vision of founders Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita — and remaining true to Sony’s DNA, we will succeed in building a better, stronger Sony.
In an attempt to make this promise a reality, Hirai announced the “One Sony” initiative in April. “One Sony” is an umbrella term that refers to the company’s renewed focus in three areas – gaming, mobile, and imaging – and the 10,000 job cuts made in the process.
This can be interpreted in a number of ways, but it’s my opinion that Sony is trying to emulate Apple’s focus-driven business model.
“We are the most focused company that I know of, or have read of, or have any knowledge of,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said at the Goldman Sachs technology conference in 2010. “We say no to good ideas every day; we say no to great ideas; to keep the number of things we focus on small in number.” Given Apple’s status as the world’s most valuable publicly traded company, it’s fair to say that this approach has worked. Sony has attempted to match that focus, but based on what was announced today, the company has a long way to go.
Tally the number of products announced today, just a handful of what Sony is likely to announce or release this year. We count four smartphones, one tablet, one tablet/ultrabook hybrid, one touch-screen PC, one television, and three cameras, bringing the count to eleven. That’s almost three times as many as the four upgrades or new products (we’re counting the new iPhone, the Retina Display iPad, the Retina Display MacBook Pro, and the increasingly-likely “iPad mini”) that Apple announced this year.
Sony hasn’t quite copied Apple, then. It appears to be making an attempt, but in the humble opinion of this writer, Sony needs to just flat-out copy Apple’s business philosophies. I’m not saying that it needs to copy Apple’s products – Samsung has already done that – but it needs to take the One Sony initiative to its logical conclusion.
How? By focusing on the first part of the name: one.
One product for each category: This is anathema to most retailers. There’s a reason why Samsung makes a variety of devices, being that variety works for most companies. If Sony’s going to become the king that it once was, however, it needs to make drastic cuts. One camera, one smartphone, one television, one tablet, one gaming system. One Sony.
(Computers are trickier, and even Apple has a number of laptop and desktop product lines. Sony gets a pass on this one.)
One operating system to bind them together: Apple has two operating systems, but that’s by necessity. The latest iteration of its desktop operating system are borrowing more and more from iOS, but the two will remain separate for the foreseeable future because that’s how it’s always been. Sony doesn’t have this problem.
Make one operating system that runs on the PlayStation 3, the PlayStation Vita, the Xperia smartphone line (which should be renamed), and the company’s tablets. This would put Sony’s software in every category, allowing the company to provide a comprehensive and cohesive experience in the living room, on mobile, and on tablet devices. One Sony.
One underlying ecosystem: Sony already has many users’ credit cards on file, and owns all the right verticals – film, gaming, and music – to create a unified solution. If the company is willing to strike a deal with its competitors to bring their products into the fold, Sony could make a huge dent in the content market.
Apple currently owns most of the market when it comes to television shows, movies, and music, but that doesn’t mean Sony can’t enter the space. It’s almost a cliche to say this by now, but iTunes has grown long in the tooth, and users are itching for a better solution.
“We can put all of our products on the table you’re sitting at,” Tim Cook said. “We say no to good ideas every day; we say no to great ideas; to keep the number of things we focus on small in number.” Sony needs to go out, buy whatever table Cook happened to be sitting at, and figure out how to make its products fit on that same table.
The company has already cut some 10,000 jobs to enhance its focus. Cutting its product lines may hurt in the short-term, but if the company is able to focus on quality – which will be easier when it’s only working on a quarter of the products that it was before – the investment could pay off in the long term.
Apple products have long succeeded by devouring other products. The iPhone (which is, by itself, worth more than Microsoft) has practically killed the iPod. The MacBook Air killed the MacBook. By beating its own products before someone else could, Apple has become the most valuable public company in the world.
Samsung, Apple, Microsoft, and a number of other companies have already chewed into Sony’s business. It’s time for the company to swallow itself whole and emerge as one, definitive Sony.