I’ve finally figured out Sony’s mobile strategy. The proud Japanese company understands that its competitiveness in the mobile sector is over. It knows it will never again speak the same language as US carriers, and it’s aware that European consumers have shifted their preference over to devices from Samsung, Apple, and a bevy of cheaper and better Android rivals. Ergo, Sony no longer gives a fuck and has decided to just go out in a blaze of glory. And that’s how we arrive at the newly announced Xperia XZ Premium, a phone that won’t be released for another four months and which was never designed to be used by mortals.
Start with the XZ Premium’s glaring exterior: a perfect mirror-finish chrome that’s at once distractingly reflective and upsettingly ugly once it’s been touched. Having handled it a few times this week, I get the feeling it magnetizes fingerprints to its surface, rather than the way you sometimes activate a touchscreen by hovering your finger above it. This thing’s been made to sit on a pedestal and look pretty. And sure, in those circumstances, it’s very pretty.
This new Sony phone is also very powerful. It has a Snapdragon 835 processor that will help it churn out 4K video with the added bonus of HDR. I imagine movies will look so good on its 5.5-inch screen that it would make a decent TV replacement for a person living in a tiny London apartment like mine. But again, it’s more of a mantlepiece item than a pocket supercomputer. Sony’s software is so raw still that the company isn’t even showing it to people; and in my early tests of the camera, its results still exhibit that familiar Sony over-processing that has plagued (the otherwise very capable) Sony phone cameras for years.
At a time when every other phone maker is zigging toward negligible screen bezels and efficient single-handed design, Sony is unapologetically zagging toward crazy specs in a chunky phone with hardware capabilities from the future. While keeping its massive bezels intact like it’s 2013 all over again.
But here’s the thing: if you announce a phone with specs and capabilities from the distant future and then actually release it in the distant future, then you’re not fulfilling a specific purpose or need, and not innovating on time. You’re the Asus that announced its Transformer tablet at Computex one summer and then re-announced it at CES the following winter. You’re the Nokia that announced the N8 when there were no phones with 720p video recording and then sat on its hands for months while the HTC EVO blew everyone away with its HD video.
The path to irrelevance is covered in the corpses of good intentions and lofty ambitions. Sony wouldn’t be Sony if it didn’t try to push itself, but in the case of the Xperia XZ Premium, all of this effort and endeavor is of academic importance if it’s couched in a horribly impractical device, which isn’t even available for people to purchase. And when it’s released... have you seen how Sony prices its phones?
The XZ Premium is a museum piece. A thing to look back on and fondly recall the notion of Sony innovation when it was still happening in the mobile space. Four months from now, when Sony tries to reheat the hype for this phone, a few diehard loyalists will spend too much for it, and they’ll be disappointed by it just like they have in each of the past five years of Xperia phones. So maybe we should just learn from the past, skip the phase of painful letdown, and keep these examples of Sony over-design fixed in their position behind glass.