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Is Sony making a comeback?

Will the new Xperia lineup make Sony a player in the mobile industry? Should you consider Sony for your next mobile device purchase?
January 25, 2013

If you’re reading this, it’s more likely for you to be on a Sony laptop computer than a Sony mobile device. Sony may have the market cornered on premium cameras and game consoles, but it has never really been all-in with mobile. Is all that changing? Is Sony getting ready to take everyone else on? We’ll look at where Sony has been, and get a better understanding of where it’s going. If things keep going as they appear to be lately, we’ll be considering Sony for our next (and maybe all future) mobile products.


In the days of ringtones and that silly little snake game being the only option on your phone, Ericsson was as big a player in the mobile industry as anyone. It was a two-horse race with Nokia, and Nokia was producing really inexpensive phones. In an effort to keep up, Ericsson sourced its parts from the same suppliers as Nokia, most notably Phillips. Phillips had a chip manufacturing facility in New Mexico that was dedicated to the tandem of Nokia and Ericsson, so things seemed to be on track. A fire around the turn of the century would threaten the sterility of the factory, thus shutting down production. Phillips assured its two major customers that production would only cease for a week, an aggressive timeline for such an incident.

Nokia thought better of that promise and began sourcing chips from otherss. Ericsson did not, and that week turned into months. Faced with supply shortages and upcoming models being held up, Ericsson was left to consider outsourcing or worse, shutting it all down. Ericsson was, and is, a telecommunications business with a stake in networks. It considered mobile to be a huge part of its success with network, so closing down the mobile operations was just not in the cards.


A new hope

As things looked grim for Ericsson’s mobile division, a partnership was considered. Sony was a small player in the mobile market around the year 2000, with 1% of the market share. Both had something to bring to the table: Ericsson had an established market share and brand notoriety, while Sony had a supply chain and forward-thinking designers. The partnership would be finalized in August of 2001, and a long, strange journey would start.

At the begining of the partnership, Nokia was really taking off, releasing the iconic 8310 device. Nokia followed that up with the (for the time) revolutionary 5510. Those two phones were cheap, and available anywhere, giving Sony Ericsson fits for getting back into the market. While many believed Sony Ericsson phones were superior, they simply didn’t have the same “it” factor Nokia devices had.

Picture this

Sony was always a leader in digital photography, and as cameras were getting smaller, putting a decent camera in the phone was getting more and more realistic. In 2005, Sony Ericsson released the K750i, which has a 2-megapixel camera on board. Way ahead of its time, the phone simply didn’t catch on as well as the company had hoped. The W800i was the first “Walkman” phone, capable of playing music from a Sony Memory Stick, but also failed to resonate with customers.

Sony had a lot of very forward-thinking products that failed to catch on widely. The external memory idea was wonderful, and having a good camera on-board was a delight. The inclusion of a color screen that could more accurately portray pictures was a dream. The designs were very sleek and modern, and the build quality was excellent. So, what went wrong?

To start, the phones were smaller than what we were used to. Sony Ericsson has always packed more into less, and the market just didn’t understand that. Changeable faceplates were the craze, not great cameras. Sony Ericsson offerings were also fairly limited in style, as each phone was a candybar style phone with the same configuration. The use of a Memory Stick was great, but not the industry standard for external memory. It was just a little too much “Sony” and not enough “mobile”. A little bit too proprietary and standardized for our taste at the time.

Finding its footing

As Sony Ericsson waned here in the States, its profile grew overseas. Europe seemed to love everything about its mobile products, and it showed in the sales. While never a true market leader, Sony Ericsson had a great presence in Europe and Asia. Things seemed to be going well, and then the earth shifted on its axis.

The release of the iPhone would shake up the mobile world, and Sony Ericsson was not immune. Everyone was clamoring to get better acquainted with the snappy new device, and its ecosystem. An iPod you could make calls with seemed ideal for many, and most of us already utilized iTunes as a primary source for music. Between those two massive achievements, and the advent of games and apps, everyone was in trouble. In the span of 3 years, Sony Ericsson’s handset sales would dip from 30 million in Q4 2007 to 8 million in Q1 2011.

Sony Ericsson would, over the next few years, take drastic steps to retain its slight market share. Closing down manufacturing plants across the world, cutting the workforce, and eliminating all-important R&D facilities would be necessary to get back on solid ground. The mobile market, in fact all tech markets, were running away from Sony Ericsson’s proven strategy.


It all falls down

Around the time Sony Ericsson was experiencing a worldwide meltdown, the world economy was following suit. As President Obama took office, and control of a gigantic economic mess, the irresponsible investments of the U.S. market were having ripple effects all over the world. The economy would rebound, but those things take time. Sony Ericsson was in deeper water than imagined.

A premium device manufacturer has no space in a financially strapped world. Sales had slowed dramatically, and reviews were changing to suit an economic mindset. Where we once praised Sony Ericsson for producing top-notch stuff, we now damned the company for its pricing policy. There were other products with similar specs, and at half the price. Sony Ericsson, it seemed, was doomed. It would take a little self evaluation before it could get on the right path.


Silver lining

Sony has proven resilient, and the economic downturn had been a wake-up call. Sony will never compromise quality, but price is another point altogether. While the market may have drifted from Sony’s method of “top quality, top dollar”, it has not been lost on Sony. Having assumed Ericsson’s stake in the company back in 2011 would clear up any confusion about who or what Sony Ericsson was, and Sony Mobile could move forward in a pointed direction.

Its first offering as Sony Mobile, the Xperia S, was well received and packed some serious punch. A 12MP camera and dedicated camera button would thrill owners. In true Sony fashion, it was a bit ahead of its time, only being offered in an unlocked version. At $549, the phone was typical of unlocked device pricing, but that was not appropriate for the market at the time. No carrier subsidy meant few would pick up this great device domestically. Once again, Sony made a great showing abroad with little attention stateside.

Recognizing the industry scope, and all its trends, Sony Mobile dedicated itself to less fragmentation. The decision to produce only smartphones – and later tablets too – is both a new direction and the same ol’ story from Sony. We’ll get great hardware as always, but deciding to focus energy in on one product line is not Sony’s bailiwick. It’s a wise move for a company that has a propensity to do too much and pay the price, and the dedication to one craft can only be beneficial to consumers.


Boomerang effect

It can be said that Sony “is what it is”, and always has been. Sony puts out awesome hardware, as it’s the company’s strength, but has often been the only one doing so. With the mobile industry coming around to do the same, it’s like throwing fastballs right into Sony’s wheelhouse. Rather than wander aimlessly in the wild, Sony now has a rare opportunity.

If the game is great hardware, then Sony’s initials are at the top of the leaderboard. As we inch toward an Android universe where great hardware is necessary to keep up with our fabulous OS, the rest of the industry better look out. Sony has the design and hardware to make heads turn, and its innovations are still ahead of their time. No device is perfect, but the Xperia Z and ZL are potentially disruptive to the Samsung status quo.

From proprietary to priority

Android is nothing without its developers, and Sony understands that. So, when AOSP decides to focus on your device for “experimental” purposes, it’s wise to respond graciously. Sony did just that, and the project was labelled a “success” by AOSP leader Jean-Baptiste Queru. Will this lead to a Sony Nexus device in the future? Who knows. Having a good relationship with the project and and maker of your device’s OS is never a bad thing, though.

In addition to this, it seems Sony is keen to working closely with XDA developers, going so far as to give elite developers an Xperia T to play with. A bit of humble pie with a side of brilliance is a great dish for Sony, and it seems it ate it up. Sony isn’t Android’s favorite son, but it knows real support starts and ends with developers. It also gives Sony valuable feedback for future devices, allowing for a more seamless interaction.

Sony Xperia Z

Time, the great equalizer

It seems as though Sony is well on its way to becoming a very sound mobile device maker. It also is in a privileged position to really shape the mobile hardware industry, as its innovations are still out in front of the pack. Having always built very solid devices, Sony Mobile is ahead of the curve with design and functionality. If there is room to stand out in a crowd of devices that all look the same, Sony will find it.

A beautiful device does not bring success every time, though. While unlocked phones may be the global standard, the U.S. market still operates with carrier subsidy for the time being. If Sony can make the device available to the carriers, it will start to get the attention of consumers. Having an Xperia in-hand will cause many to resist putting it down.

If a final word of caution is to be levied, it’s this: don’t screw with Android. Samsung and HTChave their own spins on Android with TouchWiz and Sense, respectively, but I’d caution Sony against following suit. Adopting the developer community as a favored partner was a great step, so it should build on that. Can you imagine a Cyanogen or Paranoid Android build on an Xperia… out of the box?! Now THAT would be a leap forward.


The world finally caught up to Sony build quality, which makes us wonder if Sony was right all along. Sure, the pricing structure has changed, but was a premium device the answer we always needed? Perhaps we should have been paying attention to Sony the entire time, rather than toy with the likes of a nearly defunct Nokia or struggling HTC. Sony has the makings of the next Samsung, and we’d be wise to not dismiss them again.