Growing up, I became a gadget geek early on. Not just a color TV, for this who think I am that old. But we had a VHS early on, and a VHS camcorder really early on, and cable, and remote controls, and more. But, for me, the real brand that was aspirational for me was one and one alone – Sony. I read the book, Made in Japan, written by its founder, Akio Morita, in awe. It was a great company with a great legacy, started with simple transistor radios and a dream to change peoples perception that Japanes electronics were garbage.
They peaked when I was in college, they had lost BETA, but it was agreed that it was a superior technology. Their TVs were the stuff you dreamt about. They had good stuff and their cutting edge stuff, their ES line, was really stunning. When they peaked, I jumped on the bandwagon, I had:
- a 32XBR50 – a 32″ tube that weighed like 300 lbs, but, at the time, was the best picture known. It had a subwoofer and side mounted speakers. It was a tank and I had this TV for 10 years before giving it to my folks; it might still live on with them.
- Sony ES equipment – receiver, tuner, laserdisc player (the big platters), 5-CD changers. All ES, all were optical audio and were just great. They looked great, they sounded great, and I was Sony’s champion with anyone who would listen.
But in the 1990s, I lost some of my passion for electronics (party due to still growing into the budget to afford them), and when I returned, Sony’s profile had changed. My rear-projection TV was a Mitsu – theirs were just better. And that was just the beginning. Over the next 15-20 years, Sony would proceed to make mistake after mistake, wrong bet after wrong bet, and has ended up as not just an also-ran, but a company that seems destined to outright fail. Let me re-cap some of this:
- They created and launched SACD – the super-audio CD. It was a follow-up to the hugely successful CDs, but with better audio. Leave it to the music or movie industry to keep getting us to buy the same collection, over and over, in a few format. SACD offered surround sound and great quality, and yup, I had one and even a few discs. SACD competed with DVD-Audio, another CD successor format that have better quality, surround sound, and so on. SACDs were expensive, hard to find, and had a limited catalog. They also were deathly afraid of piracy, so they outputted over analog – NOT digital, to get the true surround sound. It was lunacy, but Hollywood is always fighting yesterdays problems, not embracing today or tomorrows opportunities. Anyway, Sony/SACD ended up with a few early adopters and audiophiles diving in, but there was never any success here. Sony might argue that they won out over DVD-Audio, but nobody really noticed or cared, a truly hollow victory. The victory might even be worse, when you factor in the opportunity cost. What did they miss out on? Digital audio. Little did these technologies know that the MP3 was the format that would win. It was far inferior, but it was simple, portable, and sounded fine with crappy white earbuds. When I got my first copy of WinAmp and ripped some CDs, I realized that nobody would care about SACDs.
- Mini-Discs. Sony innovated and came up with a transitional technology, like little compact discs. They were cut, didn’t get scratched, but also didn’t offer too many reasons to get new players or buy all your music collection again. This one failed, and failed pretty hard.
- Blu-Ray vs HD-DVD. Sony and Toshiba went head to head, tons of cash, lots of battles, and after a long & hard fought war – Sony won! This format war was analogous to the SACD/DVD-A one, and similar in that it followed CDs, whereas Blue-Ray & HD-DVD would be the successor to the popular and profit-making DVD. After this long battle, the HD-DVD died a quick and ugly death, costing millions in discs, hardware, marketing, factory re-tooling, and more. Blu-ray had won, had all the studios lined up to make the movies, make the players, integrate them into computers, TVs, and more! It was going to be a home run for Sony. Until the Internet, streaming, Netflix, Red Box, OnDemand and Bit Torrents came around. All of a sudden, people didn’t want to re-buy their entire collection from DVD to Blu-Ray. And outright “collecting” of plastic discs seemed to lose its cache as well. Blu-ray, as a format, got decent reviews, but not worth the investment and discs were expensive. The real video quality was 1080p, but to many, that meant an entirely new TV! Their was never any real excitement about the format. It never made it into many computers or laptops – Apple ceremoniously didn’t integrate it into the Mac, as many speculated over and over.
- Memory sticks vs SD & CF. Sony decided that it would go its on way on digital camera memory formats. They had their own, memory stick, and the rest of the industry would embrace one of a few formats – CF or SD in most cases. Sony was stubborn with their own format, that costed more and had less capacity – as Sony had to fund most of the innovation, whereas the other formats had tons of companies competing to drive down prices and drive up capacity. Sony remains stubborn on this one and has lost out lots of camera share to Canon, Nikon, and other companies – where the memory cards are cheap commodities.
- Music. I don’t really need to explain this one, unless you just arrived from Mars. Sony owned the market, with the Walkman, for cassettes, then the Discman for CDs. Great. When Apple came out with the iPod, Sony did try and about-face and get into the market, but made so many stupid decisions, they crippled their own chances. Such as mandating their AAC format, instead of the popular MP3. And having weak form factors, no real innovation, and, seemingly, doing little more than try and come out with a me-too product.
- Phones. Sony partnered with Ericson on phones. They had a few interesting models (I never had one). But the partnership lost out on all of the big wins and share gains. For years, they lost to Nokia and Motorla (Star-Tac). Then they lost out to Blackberries and other semi-Smartphones. Then when Apple came calling, Sony got smoked. Even when Google came out with Android, Sony remained out of the discussion and the race.
- Game consoles. The PS/2 was popular, and Sony had to feel that they could beat Microsoft with the PS/3, head-to-head with the XBOX360. They were wrong. The PS/3 was more expensive, due to the built-in Blu-Ray player and Sony’s lack of subsidies and market muscle that Microsoft had. Truth is, they both got their butts kicked by the much more fun Wii, but as MS and Sony were in the high-end, let’s focus there. XBOX 360 was another Microsoft example of ruthless winning. And Sony, seemed, to be playing a more high-brow, “we’ll win with our technology.” PS/3 is now a bit of an also-ran. I own 2, but mostly for the Blu-Ray and media players in them. I had an XBOX 360 and after a few 3 Rings of Red Light/Death, I knew it wasn’t for me. But, again, Sony had an effort and it fell short.
- TVs. When I got my Mitsubishi, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever return to Sony. I did. I got a Sony TV with built-in Google TV, that’s how good of an employee I am 🙂 It’s a good TV, I do think the picture is good, not great, and a sacrifice to get the GoogleTV brains inside. It’s not LED, it’s not 240Hz, but it works ok and looks good in my bedroom. But what do I dream of in TVs? Samsung. I do have a lovely LCD Sony in my living room, but Samsung’s just keeping getting better and better and better, so much so, that I really want one. And now Sony is compounding all of this with a *huge* bet on 3-D, a technology I predict will not take off, for obvious reasons! They are annoying to watch, the glasses are a pain, you can never really have more than a few pairs – how can you watch the super bowl with 8 people over with 2-4 pairs of glasses? Don’t answer, rhetorical question. Sony might just go down in flames on 3-D, not because they are invested, but because they are over-invested.
- eBook readers. Son’y been trying in this space for some time, and their readers get decent reviews, however; a little company called Amazon has this thing called a Kindle, which works great (I have one), is tied to their amazing bookstore, and is pervasive. Yes, the Kindle has DRM, which I loathe, but the Kindle meets the new Apple-defined bar of, “it just works.” So, while the Kindle sells millions and millions, Sony will continue to take it on the chin while they compete as also-rans. The other competitors, like iPad (does lots!) and Nook (does more than read, on Android), offer something unique. What does the Sony eReader offer over any of these? Nothing.
Why am I writing all of this? I went to the Sony Store today. I have had a Sony credit card for years and am ready to spend my 50,000 points and close the account. Know why? Because after browsing the web site over and over, I can’t find anything I really want. That made it loud and clear that a) I’m not a Sony guy any longer, and b) the company is in the crapper, probably forever.
Sony still has lots of revenue, they own a music company and movie production house, they still make lots of electronics of all sizes and shapes. And it’s the mass and heft of all of these things that might be killing them. At todays visit to the Sony Store, I was warned, all sales are final! What!? Yes. Sony Electronics owns the stores, Sony Playstation is a separate company, so they will sell me a PS/3, but I can’t return it. It’s this kind of idiot thinking that is killing them. Go down the mall to the Apple store – the experience is fun, engaging, and focuses on the customer. I have no idea what Sony is focused on, but it’s not me.