It’s funny how times change. Twenty years ago, the PlayStation was a skunkworks product that a renegade faction within Sony had just fought to get released. Now here we are in 2015, and Sony CEO Kaz Hirai — a former boss of the PlayStation division — has announced that the company is essentially going to stop trying to grow its consumer electronics businesses beside the PlayStation 4. The PlayStation isn’t only Sony’s last great product; it might as well be Sony’s only product.
Sony is The PlayStation Company.
Sony has always been the crown jewel of Japan’s once-dominant technology industry. The company made beautifully designed, highly profitable devices in just about every category imaginable and imagined a few categories of its own. But the one invention with the potential to unify the company — the internet — proved to be its undoing. Sony botched the shift to digital music, it missed the move to smartphones and tablets, and has consistently failed to create a compelling ecosystem for its products. Now the smartphone — other companies’ smartphones, usually — has replaced almost everything it sells.
PlayStation is different. To be clear, the PS4 is the only truly compelling product that Sony sells today. That’s not to say it’s the only good product — almost everything the company makes is at least fit for purpose. But the PS4 is the only Sony product with genuine differentiation. Everything about its launch was textbook; Sony created a sleek, powerful, affordable console and targeted it right at the heart of a clear demographic while Microsoft sank its own credibility with boneheaded decision after decision.
Today, the PlayStation brand stands for the cool, futuristic gaming experience as much as it ever did in the '90s. The PS4 isn't a do-everything box — it is simply ruthlessly efficient at what it is intended to do, offering unbeatable performance and design for the price. The Xbox One will continue to do fine in North America, but Sony is right back at the forefront of the colossal video games industry.
Sony moved out of the flagging Windows PC market last year, and yesterday Hirai said that he would not "rule out" doing the same with its TV and mobile divisions. That would be shocking to many, but it’s encouraging to see Hirai even consider it. Sony should stop selling smartphones — it’s too reliant on Google, and with even Samsung fading, the premium Android market just isn’t fertile ground for anyone. Sony should stop selling TVs — it sounds unthinkable, but there’s little profit or incentive for the company to remain in the industry since it sold its LCD panel division to form part of Japan Display. And, though the company just announced it will spin off its audio and video business into a subsidiary, Sony should stop selling Walkmans, Blu-ray players, and countless other inconsequential distractions altogether — it’s consistently failed to exploit the potential of having fingers in every pie.
What Sony needs to do is focus on the people that want to give it money: that means Apple and Xiaomi, which buy its image sensors; that means moviegoers and music fans, who (along with Japanese life insurance customers) have propped up the company’s bottom line for years; and yes, that means gamers, the only group who appears to believe that Sony remains relevant in consumer electronics.
What would a PlayStation-first Sony look like? It would need to be a lot smaller, for one thing. Games consoles are unlikely to be a growth business again — Sony itself created the most successful one of all time over 15 years ago. The PlayStation 2 sold 155 million units, sank Sega, and nearly knocked out Nintendo for good. The PlayStation 3 sold around 80 million units, though, as Nintendo’s Wii swept up the casual audience, which now appears to have abandoned dedicated devices altogether for mobile. There is absolutely a core base of people who will remain willing to pay for games consoles, but it’s limited in size.
There’s a big difference between selling the PlayStation 4 and the PlayStation 2, however. With the PS2, Sony sold the console at a loss and could only make money on disc-based software sales. With the PS4, which features a less esoteric internal design, Sony is making a little money on the hardware already and has far more potential revenue streams from PlayStation Network. Its PlayStation Plus subscription service, which is now required to play games online, is one example. More software titles themselves are bought through the digital storefront these days, along with their potentially lucrative downloadable content. And although both are far from proven, further growth could come from nascent initiatives like PlayStation Vue and PlayStation Now.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter all that much how many PlayStation 4 consoles Sony can sell. What matters is who it sells them to: ideally dedicated, repeat consumers that will continue to spend throughout the lifecycle of the system. That’s why the PS4’s explicit focus on gamers was so perfectly calculated; Microsoft may have lost some of its best customers with its blunders that ensured the Xbox One conversation revolved around price, DRM, and TV features that no-one wanted. The PS4 isn’t a particularly ambitious or original device, but it’s a very well-conceived one.
So yes, Sony should focus on PlayStation. It should make the PS4 as good at serving its gamer niche as it possibly can. It should continue fostering good relationships with indie developers so that when the next Minecraft comes along, it’ll be on a Sony platform. And it should cut away — or at least spin off — all the chaff. There are things worth keeping around, of course — the impressive Alpha camera line has clear synergy with the profitable image sensor division, for example, and Sony’s recent efforts to engender a more fluid, grassroots approach to product development could well pay dividends in the long run. But right now, Sony has no business being in the mobile business, or the TV business, or much of the consumer electronics business.
Continuing to concentrate on phones and other products actually makes the PlayStation experience worse for most people. Take the PS4’s ability to stream games to mobile devices — a killer feature needlessly limited to the PS Vita and Sony’s Xperia Android line. Why can’t I play Destiny on my iPad when the TV’s occupied? The iOS PlayStation app, meanwhile, is a confusing mess that hasn’t even been updated for the iPhone 6. These sound like minor points, but imagine what Sony could do if everyone at the company were focused on making its most important product as good as possible. As Microsoft is learning with its recent iOS and Android experiments, you have to serve the customers where they already are.
It’s sad to reduce Sony’s glittering consumer electronics history down to one device, but it could be worse. Toshiba doesn’t have a PlayStation. Sharp doesn’t have a PlayStation. Even Samsung doesn’t have a PlayStation. Only Sony has the PlayStation, and that means it has one of the most potent brands and valuable platforms in the world. It’s time to make the most of it.