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How Sony lost its groove - Opinion

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May 05, 2012

MAY 5 — Sometimes it is useful to be reminded that a great strategy is only great in context. 

From the early 1980s and into the ‘90s, Sony was great. The unrivalled master of the consumer electronics world, its name was synonymous with cutting-edge technology, sophistication and desirability. 

People had a collective vision back then of a thrilling yet humane future and Sony’s hypercapable, slightly fussy gadgets were its clearest expression. But it was about much more than the Walkman and the Trinitron - everything the company made was of impeccable quality, satisfying to hold and intricately detailed in its functionality. 

That last statement is still true today but everything else has changed. Sony still makes exquisite products, but fewer and fewer people get excited about them. 

The strategy address recently delivered by the corporation’s new chief executive, Mr Kazuo Hirai, earned press coverage that verged on mocking. 

The Wall Street Journal noted that the brand’s “once-sterling cachet has deteriorated”, while The New York Times went further, placing Sony in “a fight for its life” and accusing it of “an astonishing lack of ideas”. 

Both observations are correct, but they only hint at the underlying question: Why is the strategy that once served Sony so well now failing so badly? It’s not as if its new cameras take fuzzy pictures or its home stereos fall apart after three months. And the market for consumer electronics is larger than it has ever been. 

The New York Times article rightly observes that Sony’s current product line is crowded and confusing, but offering customers a wide array of choices was fundamental to its success in the past. What changed? 

Part of this shift is technological. 

Apple’s iPhone — the product often described as getting everything right that Sony got wrong - only comes in one current model and two colours, yet it’s tremendously customisable. 

Since the iPhone’s software, rather than its hardware, drives most of the user experience, consumers are not so much using a product designed for them as one designed by them. 

This strategy is especially powerful because it replaces a single moment of instant gratification - buying the perfect camera, TV or mobile phone — with dozens of such moments. Every time users install an application or download a song, they experience an emotional impact on par with what they felt when they bought the product. 

This suggests a more fundamental explanation for Sony’s troubles: Consumers today care more about experiences, while Sony is still focused on products. It’s been trapped by its past successes. 

In the early ‘80s, simply delivering technology in a usable form was still the biggest challenge and Sony got it right before anyone else. The company had an astonishing ability to find the next technical hurdle - a brighter TV, a smaller tape player, an integrated camcorder — and leap over it with grace, before its competitors even thought to try. 

In an industrial, product-oriented economy, this was enough. Every year saw new products with unprecedented capabilities. 

And as long as each one could do something new, we did not seem to care what kind of experience we had using it. 

Plowing through 70-page manuals and fussing with Dolby II and metal/non-metal switches was just part of the deal. 

In the experience economy, these expectations are reversed. 

Technology is a given and the question “What are the specs?” has been replaced by “What is it like to use?”

Sony’s expertise at making the next great thing has been matched by companies like Samsung and LG, and soon enough they will all be caught by increasingly sophisticated Chinese manufacturers. By not modifying its business model, Sony has been left behind by a world that has changed its relationship with technology. 

What is tragic is that Sony still has all the resources to execute well on a new strategy. Its engineering capabilities are impeccable, its research and development resources are highly developed, and it has massive amounts of high-quality media. 

The success of the PlayStation shows that it has the ability to deliver a powerful experience through an integrated ecosystem of products and content. But these days, the PlayStation is just another video game platform struggling to keep up with innovative alternatives like the Wii, Xbox and Kinect, and it’s been years since Sony’s other divisions unveiled a real game changer. 

What is missing is the strategic vision to emphasise the delivery of powerful and resonant user experiences. Mr Hirai acknowledged several times the need for the company to change, but the goals he stated were still hardware-focused: Sell this many smartphones, that many camcorders. 

The user is still missing in this strategy, as is a sense of what Sony stands for and what its vision is for an integrated experience. For Sony, it may be too late. 

For other brands, there may still be time to change. Every industry has its Sony, still trying to get ahead by solving a problem that has already been solved. But every industry also has its Virgin Atlantic, its IKEA or its Procter & Gamble: The major player that continues to innovate. Even Microsoft has shown signs of sensitivity to user experience in its latest mobile operating system. 

There is nothing magic about innovation, just as there is nothing magic about technology. Both are hard work, but as Sony has shown, all the hard work in the world will not matter if you’re working with a strategy that was framed for an earlier era. — Today

* Sohrab Vossoughi is founder, president and chief creative director of Ziba, a design and innovation consultancy based in Oregon, United States.



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~~~~ Mario Kart 8 drove far past my expectations! Never again will I doubt the wheels of a Monster Franchise! :0 ~~~~

This seems about right, which is also why Sony employees have little to fear from a bankruptcy on the whole, because Sony's is a problem of vision, not at all of means. Their fundamentals are solid, they just need leadership.



Monster Hunter: pissing me off since 2010.

I believe in Kaz, he's the one who reversed the disaster of the PS3 and made it, in my opinion, the best console of this generation.



Sigs are dumb. And so are you!

Fusioncode said:
I believe in Kaz, he's the one who reversed the disaster of the PS3 and made it, in my opinion, the best console of this generation.

That is a bold statement...You got balls, kid...but agreed :D



"Trick shot? The trick is NOT to get shot." - Lucian

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Yes. I agree.

However, I do think that Sony can take that crown back once again if someone leads them the way the have to be led in an ever changing landscape. Not just some CEO with some old codes. Thats what bought Sony down.





Yay!!!

"Since the iPhone’s software, rather than its hardware, drives most of the user experience, consumers are not so much using a product designed for them as one designed by them. "

"Every time users install an application or download a song, they experience an emotional impact on par with what they felt when they bought the product. "


The stupidest things I've read all day. People don't buy iPhones because they want to customise everything themselves. They buy them because out of the box it does exactly what they want it to do: phone people, browse the internet, play music and video. That's all. It's very simple. It's Sony's devices that have WAY TOO MANY options and terrible defaults.



At this point it no longer matters what qualities Sony might have. Now, it's about which qualities are lacking.

You don't need to fail to go out of business, you just have to do less then the competition.



In the wilderness we go alone with our new knowledge and strength.

I think the competition just got better.



Twitter: @d21lewis  --I'll add you if you add me!!

I personally date the beginning of Sony's "downfall" as the mid 1990s; and I believe that it was actually the result of Sony using the success in one division to try to spur success in other divisions. In some cases they have been successful (the PS2 helped push adoption of DVD and encouraged people to upgrade their home theater system), but in many cases they have undermined successful products.