Just days after the closure of Sony's deal to buy out Ericsson from their decade-old Sony Ericsson joint venture, we've sat down with US product marketing manager Stephen Sneeden here at Mobile World Congress to discuss the phone brand's past, present, and future.
On integration, tablets, and the prospect of a PS Vita phone
By all accounts, last year's Xperia Play was well off the mark of the notion of a true "PSP phone," a dream that has haunted and eluded the gaming community for years (more on the Xperia Play in a bit). With the launch of the PS Vita, there's renewed discussion on the topic; Sony already has experience integrating 3G into the platform, and from there, it's a relatively short leap to build out a full-fledged handset. Sony chief Kaz Hirai himself has hinted that porting the Vita's OS to phones and tablets could be a compelling proposition, which — if implemented correctly — could short-circuit many concerns about the death of the dedicated portable gaming market.
"What happens in the future, we don't know, but right now [Sony and Sony Mobile] are separate organizations."
When asked about the prospects for a PS Vita phone, Sneeden said, "I'll let you speak to the PlayStation group about that." In other words, such a device would come out of Sony Computer Entertainment, not Sony Mobile. In fact, Sneeden went on to tell us that there aren't currently any products being co-developed by Sony Mobile and other groups within the company — they share some support staff, but the products themselves are entirely siloed.
Likewise, Sneeden made it clear that Sony Mobile isn't responsible for Sony's Android-powered tablets. That's strange considering the overwhelming overlap in form factor, operating system, and hardware components, but he couldn't give any guidance on when (or if) that might change. "This is how it is," he said.
The Sony Ericsson "marble" is going away
The Sony Ericsson logo is still here, but not for long
The Xperia P and U announced this week represent the first two phones officially unveiled by Sony since the deal wrapped up, and the units on display at the show dispense of the Sony Ericsson branding on front — it's just the classic Sony logo. On the back, though, it's a different story: the old Sony Ericsson "marble" is still there, a relic of a time before €1.05 billion changed hands. We were told today that the marble is being phased out, it's just that there's some residual design and engineering left over — the work that went into creating the P and U predates the buyout. It's reasonable to expect that the marble will disappear from devices launched later in 2012.
Unified branding and fewer models: a common theme
HTC's very public, well-documented move toward fewer devices and unified branding — culminating in the launch of the One X, One S, and One V this past Sunday — is in effect at Sony, too. Sneeden says that all future Sony phones will carry the Xperia brand, for instance, and you only need to look at the Xperia S, U, and P side by side to see the familial resemblance. That said, there's still extraordinary (and difficult to resist) pressure coming in from carriers to bend the rules: take the Xperia Ion, for instance, which is essentially a more plainly-designed Xperia S with LTE that's launching as an AT&T exclusive.
"Getting an LTE smartphone on AT&T was very important to us."
When asked just how much carriers would cause Sony to diverge from its plan for consistent naming and design, Sneeden said "for a major carrier like AT&T, there is more collaboration. Getting an LTE smartphone on AT&T was very important to us." What we found most fascinating was the method by which the one-off Ion got its name: Sony presented AT&T with a list of possible names to select from, and AT&T had the final call. "AT&T and Verizon maybe have the toughest requirements in the world."
A Sony Nexus?
Thus far, responsibility for Google's so-called Nexus devices — the lead phones and tablets to showcase new versions of Android — have been manufactured exclusively by HTC, Motorola, and Samsung. Would Sony entertain the idea of participating? "Sure, why not?" Sneeden says. He says that they're "open" to having that discussion, but qualifies, "does this present a viable opportunity for Sony? Do you still have the 'Sonyness' in the product? I don't want to tamper with the Sonyness." It's a reference to the fact that Sony views the Xperia line as a holistic platform that's connected to other services in the ecosystem — Sony Entertainment Network, mainly — and with a pure stock Nexus device, Google likely wouldn't allow those services to come preloaded.
In other words, it seems like either Sony or Google would need to back way down from their stated principles to make a Nexus device a reality.
Android and beyond
Sony Ericsson had been saying for some time that it was open to any platform opportunity that it saw — it wasn't committed to go with Android alone. Today, Sony's phone line is 100 percent Android after stints with Windows Mobile and Symbian in the last couple years, a decision driven largely by its ubiquity: "The market has decided loudly on Android... it doesn't eliminate us from examining other opportunities, but you see where we are right now. We're very much focused on Android, and we're very confident in Android in its relevance and its prominence in the market." Rumors that Sony is working on a Windows Phone persist, but there certainly wasn't any hint of an announcement here at the show this week — but it's leaving the door open.
The Xperia Play
We pressed Sneeden on the future of the Xperia Play form factor — physical buttons dedicated to gaming — but he insisted that he had nothing to announce and that this week's news was all about the PlayStation Certified experience on a full-touchscreen device (both the Xperia S and Xperia Ion are certified). "The gaming story is going to continue to evolve." He did, however, briefly wax philosophical on the Play and some missteps in how it was brought to market:
"Initially, we were treating it as 'smartphone first,' and trying to be everything for everybody instead of going after a core audience. So, we kind of missed that boat a little bit by saying, hey, it's a productivity tool — it is an Android device and so it has that complexity to it and that opportunity to run any application you want, but we wanted to make it all this to all people when there was a very select audience that we needed to really try to hit specifically and try to generate that awareness."
"We kind of missed that boat a little bit by saying, hey, it's a productivity tool... when there was a very select audience that we needed to really try to hit specifically and try to generate that awareness."
He went on to point out that the Play is still available from carriers — a relatively long lifespan for a phone by modern standards — and that there are now over 200 gaming titles optimized for it. Whether we'll actually see a Play 2 (and how it'd stack up against a PS Vita), though, is as big a mystery as ever.
Kaz Hirai touted the benefits of "One Sony" during the company's MWC event this week, and the pressure's on him to prove that he's right. Sneeden notes that there's no other company in the world with access to as many resources — a movie studio and record label, for instance — and that seamless integration to create a huge, harmonious ecosystem between divisions "is always going to be a challenge in a company as large as Sony."
With this much at stake, though, it doesn't have a choice. Sneeden keeps it positive: he says the integration with his corporate parent is rife with "opportunities, not issues."
Update: Sony reached out today with a statement on our story, pointing out that both Sony and Sony Ericsson "have collaborated very closely" since the joint venture's beginnings:
Sony Mobile Communications is part of the Sony Group and a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sony Corporation. Sony and Sony Mobile Communications, formerly Sony Ericsson, have collaborated very closely on product development since the start of the Sony Ericsson joint venture. The integration between the different divisions of Sony will continue to grow and evolve. Now as part of the Sony group, Sony Mobile Communications is in an even stronger position to bring connected entertainment experiences to consumers and to bring these experiences to market even faster.