Sony should be unstoppable. No other company has such a potent mix of content, brand cachet, and hardware design in multiple areas. But the story with Sony for well over a decade has been its ineptitude at bringing all these things together to form a coherent whole.
CEO Kaz Hirai acknowledged this when taking over in early 2012, presenting a strategy called “One Sony” in an attempt to unify and streamline the company’s businesses. But that followed previous chief Howard Stringer’s “Sony United” concept; the dream of a slick machine that can draw on the best of each division is a unicorn that the company continues to chase.
At CES 2015, Sony’s predicament remains clear. Almost nothing in their gargantuan booth appears to be a bad product. There are gorgeous TVs, a thriving game platform, some of the most advanced cameras in the world, and much more, yet the connective tissue between all of this is little stronger than in years before. However, there’s a new wildcard that could have serious implications for Sony’s ecosystem: Google.
Sony’s SmartWatch 3 improves on its predecessor in some minor ways — the new metal band feels better than most, and its integrated GPS chip makes it less reliant on a tethered smartphone — but the biggest difference is its software. The latest model runs Android Wear, Google’s new operating system for wearables. The story’s the same with Sony’s 2015 TVs: every set will run Android TV rather than the proprietary software on prior models. But unlike Android on phones, hardware companies can’t adapt Android Wear or TV; what Google gives is what Sony gets.
"We looked at it and said people want to be familiar with their device," says Phil Jones (pictured below), product information manager for TVs at Sony. "They want to be able to walk up to their TV and within a minute be able to use it. Google Android devices have dramatic marketshare — it’s like 80 percent of the phones worldwide use this operating system. Even if you’re an iOS person you probably have a Chromecast, or you have some sort of relationship with Google. So people are familiar, and what is familiar becomes simple."
Sony has linked up with Google initiatives in the past, of course — its first Android phone was released in 2010, and it was one of the biggest backers of the ill-fated Google TV project. But Android TV is a simpler system far more likely to succeed, and Android Wear has much more momentum. From the consumer’s point of view, it’s probably for the best that Sony is abandoning its often clunky home-baked solutions. And, with the sale of VAIO, the company has severed its ties to Microsoft and gone all-in with Google as a third-party software provider. All of this is great news for Google, which will get some of the most attractive vessels for its services yet.
The problem for Sony is that a Sony smartwatch is now functionally the same as an LG or Samsung or Motorola smartwatch. A Sony TV now runs the same interface as a Sharp or Philips TV, or any other set with an Android TV-compatible box plugged in. Unlike with phones, where the likes of Samsung and HTC were allowed to run wild and customize Android to their own benefit, Google has adopted a stricter attitude to what Android looks and feels like on other types of device.
With the Google partnership, Sony’s business model is even more reliant on wooing customers with beautiful hardware and high performance; a risky strategy in the current consumer tech landscape. Will anyone really feel compelled to buy a Sony TV or watch to match their phone when competing products run the exact same software? If Sony’s financial results over the past few years are anything to go by, the company’s undeniable knack for design isn’t the silver bullet it once was.
"Maybe we could’ve built our own infrastructure," says Jones. "But what is the center of the house? For some people it’s TV, some people that’s the tablet, and for some people it’s the phone. But for all those things, the other two devices are running on Android for most people. Why not make sure that, regardless of whether the TV, the tablet, or the phone is the hub, that Google connects them?"
Well, Sony has a lot more than three product categories. Take the new audiophile-focused Walkman ZX2. On one hand, it feels like a return to the old Sony spirit; let’s engineer an amazing, niche device, sell it for nearly $1,200, and see if anyone bites. But it runs 2012’s Android 4.2, and the basic interface is laggy beyond belief. I asked Xperia product marketing manager Stephen Sneeden if Sony’s mobile team had any input into the new Walkman’s design, and he said that the device was outside his purview. The ZX2 doesn’t feel like a product of One Sony; it’s a product created by one of many Sonys.
The ZX2 isn't a product of One Sony; it’s a product from one of many Sonys
The PlayStation 4 is another example. It’s an excellent, popular games console, but Sony’s woes with building out PlayStation Network have been well documented, and the company’s gaming devices still don’t interact much with other products. While there’s a rudimentary PlayStation app that lets you check your profile and takes you to a web store, and Xperia phones are starting to allow streaming from PlayStation Now, that’s about as far as it goes. A powerful $399 box connected to the TV could be the center of any product lineup, but Sony seems content to sequester it away as a curio separate from the rest of its devices. That dissonance is only going to get worse as the reliance on Google takes hold.
Sony has made efforts to unify its strategy. "When you’re a big company it’s easy to become siloed, and we’re working really hard not to be siloed and to communicate so our products work seamlessly together," says Jones, who notes that he now works in the same buildings as people from other divisions rather than having to go to another office "literally a mile away." Jones also cites examples where knowledge has been shared to improve products on a technical level; the company’s 4K TVs, for instance, use image processing technology informed by the output from its professional 4K movie cameras. "That experience of making the cameras, making the content, displaying it in 4K, helps us make a better TV," says Jones. "Because everybody else, this is their first time at the rodeo. We’ve been doing it for a while, and we can do a better job of it."
The thing is, Sony seems to think that Google can do a better job of the cloud infrastructure that customers have come to expect. And it’s almost certainly right. But the trouble with bunting to Google is that there’s little room for Sony to innovate or leverage the things it has that no-one else can offer. The company’s most eye-catching successes have been in divisions that Google has little to do with — cameras, gaming, image sensors, movies. What could be a more illustrative example of Sony’s ecosystem woes than The Interview — a movie from its own studio — coming to Xbox and Google Play before the PS4? It’s as if Sony has given up on its role as a content provider.
The shift to Android software will make Sony TVs and watches better in the short term, but it’s far from a forward-looking strategy. As Sony itself has said repeatedly over the years, it needs to pull itself together if it’s ever going to realize its potential. But the vision at CES is for several Sonys, and the most important one is Google.