Sony at sixty: Losing touch with consumers?

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Sony, the company that brought us the Walkman and changed the way we consumed music in the ’80s, has turned 60 – quite an achievement.

A recent article suggests that Sony is losing touch with what consumers actually want, citing a range of luxury products in the Qualia line that were axed within three years. Sure, it’s all very well designing a CD player that self-centers the disc – very swishy – but the price tag doesn’t justify it as a mass consumer item.

Part of the current problem is Sony’s previous success that now spans a number of different divisions: gaming, consumer electronics, music, film – and sometimes I wonder how much these divisions actually talk to one another.

New boy CEO Howard Stringer seems to have taken a new, and distinctly Western, approach to Sony – downsizing and focusing on growth areas rather than maintaining the cultural status quo of, for example, promoting retired executives to advisory positions.

I’ve had mixed views about Sony. I used to love their products (yes I
was a Betamax kid, sorry). I’ve had VCRs, camcorders, tape and CD
players, and TVs from them. I always felt I was paying a bit over the
odds but for quality items – and indeed they were. Very rarely has any
Sony item let me down (even my dad’s Betamax is still just about going,
nearly two decades on).

But then they make some strange decisions. Beta aside, they’ve created
some odd proprietary formats, done stupid things with copy protection
and ‘infecting’ people’s PCs when all they wanted to do was play a CD,
and perhaps been a little pretentious?

I’m not inclined to by Sony’s in the way I used to be. They don’t come
across as cutting edge any more, nor do they ooze the quality they used
to. Maybe that’s just my perception, maybe other companies have got
better.

They’ve had successes, sure. Walkman was a defining moment. Playstation
is an ongoing success (though it will be interesting to see how PS3
does)

Sony’s president Ryoji Chubachi seems to be focused on TVs and portable
music players. Sony aspired to being another iPod killer, but it hasn’t
worked.

We’ve seen a lot of good TVs being produced by Sony – but are they
spectacular? They’ve certainly got good global market share, so they
must be doing something right here. But Sony have grown themselves into
much more than makers of good TVs.

If Sony worked better together, they could get back to real innovation
(a la Walkman). Listening to consumers wouldn’t go amiss either.

Sixty: it’s a ripe old age for a technology and entertainment company.
Will Sony grow in all areas or become a smaller, niche company. How
will the new high-def world affect it (Blu-ray, anyone?). As always,
time will tell.

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Andy Merrett