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Sony has lost faith in mobile. What went wrong?
Earlier this week, Sony announced that its corporate strategy for 2015 to 2017 involves taking less risk when it comes to TV and mobile, with the company instead electing to focus most of its attention on areas that it thinks there is room for real growth like the Playstation platform, image sensors for mobile and camera, as well as its entertainment business.
Bottom-line, it seems Sony has lost faith in mobile. For this Friday Debate we discuss what went wrong. Furthermore, what can they do to turn things around, or are they better off cutting their loses and selling their mobile division just like they did with their VAIO PC division early last year.
This week there wasn’t a lot of community responses, though you can check out the official forum thread to read all the responses we received.
What Team AA has to say
I see Sony’s mobile problem primarily as a crisis of identity. As Android enthusiasts, we know that Sony builds high quality handsets, but its flagships haven’t pushed the boat out enough to really make the brand noticeable to a broader crowd. Where is Sony’s BoomSound, QHD display, laser autofocus, fingerprint scanner, “phablet” or critically acclaimed software feature? These may sound like gimmicks, but the little features help your product stand out, it gives us all something to talk about.
Similarly for the company’s convoluted mid-range and budget products. Price and features just don’t compete with the likes of the Moto E, G, or more nimble brands like Huawei and Lenovo. The company is a victim of how competitive the market is these days.
This problem extends to marketing too. With so many similar looking and sounding products, it’s tough for consumers to know where they stand with Sony. I can’t remember the differences between the Xperia M, L, E3, M2, or T2 Ultra, and there’s not a huge reason for general consumers to feel excited for the minor differences between the flagship Z1, Z2, or Z3 either. Perhaps it would be in Sony’s interest to slim down its mobile operation and release a smaller selection of focused, more unique products. I’d be disappointed to see the brand sold off or disappear altogether, but I can understand why Sony is frustrated with its mobile division.
What are difference a few years makes… As someone who was absolutely smitten with Sony during the late 90s and into the early 2000s, it’s horribly ironic that I now lust after such “once junk” brands as Samsung or LG. And indeed that’s true: how many people would actually have said they wanted a Samsung PC or LG phone back in 2000?
Sony has become an absolute mess to say the least. It’s been in an eternal period of restructuring for over a decade now, a problem in no small part stemming from its gross inability to have accepted marketplace changes and severely clamped down on product pricing structure: those VAIO Z laptops were awesome a few years back, but who could actually afford one? Likewise Sony had an EL-panel television ages ago, but it was minuscule and cost thousands of dollars.
It’s actually quite tragic to look at Sony’s website these days and see the horribly slim offerings. The once proud VAIO line is basically gone, as is any semblance of genuine genius (AIBO!). Meanwhile, new reports show the mobile division severely tanking, something that will no doubt come as a shock to those living here in Japan where the brand is seemingly thriving simply because “its Japanese” and at the expense of “foreign” OEMs like Samsung and LG, companies that are doing comparatively well elsewhere in the world.
With all this chaos going on, does anyone else find it bizarre that any time Sony’s name comes up in the news it’s either for something absurdly unrealistic (see the pricing on its Walkman ZX2 or the just-announced Hi-Fi Micro SD card) or else just a flagrant mess of absolute incompetence (The Interview and PSN Outage incidents). As I’ve said before, it’s actually bizarre to think that a child of 10 years of age would never know Sony was a company to be respected and unrivaled shortly before their birth.
The biggest problem with Sony is, quite frankly, Sony. The company will try everything under the sun in its attempt to remain relevant and yet something is missing. Perhaps it’s the ability to market its products in overseas markets. Perhaps its the fact that every time you turn around there’s another “flagship” Xperia Z phone being released. Heck, maybe it’s just the possibility that the company lost all of its talented staff and thus is running on empty.
Some weeks ago I covered a story about VAIO Corporation releasing a VAIO smartphone in the near future. I still hold true to the belief that, if said product line were to actually outsell the Xperia series, it would serve as the ultimate smack in the face for Sony. If you ask me, the company needs a real leader that can finally fix the disease plaguing the company’s products and sales.
It’s sad to see Sony struggling to make a difference in the mobile business, given the major advantages it has over smaller competitors. Sony has largely failed to capitalize on its brand cachet, first through the ill-thought marriage with Ericsson and even after that. No other Android OEM could match Sony in terms of worldwide presence and brand power, yet Sony hasn’t even tried to compete in many markets. Even as PlayStation rules the console landscape, there’s almost no crossover to Xperia, and even the little crossover that exists isn’t really promoted. The same with Sony’s entertainment division. It’s hard to tell why Sony failed to capitalize on these advantages – maybe the company’s getting too old and ossified in its ways, or maybe it’s the fault of nearsighted leadership.
As Rob mentioned, Sony phones lack unique features and it’s often hard to differentiate them, even though everyone agrees that Xperias are solid devices. Perhaps it’s not Sony’s fault that people fall for gimmickry and flashy marketing; but it’s totally Sony’s fault that companies that have a tenth of its resources have a clearer vision of what works and what people want.
Should Sony give up on the smartphone business? Long term, that may be a good choice – as the market continues to commoditize, there will be less and less money to be made, so maybe cutting losses early is better. But even in commoditized markets (see PCs), premium players can thrive. Sony could become the Apple of Android, by focusing all its efforts on a few excellent models and marketing them with flair and vision. I am pretty sure that won’t happen though.
Now it’s your turn
How do you feel about Sony and their mobile division, what could they do to turn this ship around? Should they give up on mobile altogether? We welcome you to leave your responses in the comments below.