A few years ago I would have argued with you to the end if you told me that I would be sitting down to write an article about a world with no Sony. Just a few years ago Sony was the ultimate consumer electronics company with its tentacles reaching into each and every area of audio, video, entertainment, gaming, convergence and beyond. At the time, Sony's HDTVs were thought of as the best in the business, with more cachet than any other brand. Their music label was a bit down like most major record companies but Sony Music still had a nice roster of artists and a very strong back catalog. Movie franchises like Spiderman as well as a booming home video market made Sony Pictures sparkle. The gem on the top of the crown was the Playstation 3 gaming platform that practically printed money for Sony but also helped win the Blu-ray format war, helping Sony earn yet another royalty stream. Things were good. In fact, things were very good for Sony.
How things have changed in a few short years.
On the HDTV front, reports suggest that Sony is now third in market share behind Vizio and Samsung who came seemingly out of nowhere to offer bigger and brighter HDTVs for less money in a very short period of time. Much like the lesson learned by Pioneer - Sony found out that selling "The best HDTV" wasn't as good of a business model as selling "Two times the HDTV for half the price," and their market share eroded. Sony, without question, makes a fine HDTV these days but as housing prices dipped, consumers looked for ways to get more for their money and increasingly it hasn't been with Sony like it had been for decades before.
Roll the tape back a few years where booming cellular telephone brands like Nokia and Sony Ericsson were as viable as any in the market. In a world where phones are technologically developing faster than perhaps any convergence product - players like Blackberry (RIM), Google (with various partners like HTC) and especially Apple have eaten Sony Ericsson's lunch and eaten it in quick order. Even highly addicted Blackberry users are now considering changing over to the dark side of Android or Apple en masse, thus leaving Sony far from the pinnacle of handheld devices and cell phones. Sony Ericsson has some Android devices now but players like HTC have seemingly captured that space and Sony doesn't own the OS as some think they should have. Google does or in the case of the iPhone - Apple does.
Speaking of Apple, let us not forget the success that was the Sony Walkman. In the 1980s, the Walkman changed the world as it brought personal music to the masses in ways that transistor radios couldn't even dream of. With that said, Apple revolutionized the world with the iPod (and ensuing iPhone, iPad and other i-devices) in ways that Sony couldn't compete with. An iPod was simply superior to a Walkman and powered by stolen music in the late 1990s from the likes of Napster and Limewire - Apple's iPod kicked Sony Walkman's ass and never looked back. Ten years ago you likely didn't know anyone without a Walkman. Today, do you know anyone without some form of iPhone, iPod or iPad? I didn't think so - as I don't either.
When it comes to selling music, Sony has every reason to sell their music on copy protected Blu-ray, yet to this day there is no meaningful amount of music being sold on Blu-ray. SACD was a flop of a format for a number of reasons including: it was stereo (for the most part), there was little label support and it had no video. Blu-ray is superior to SACD in every way. Not to mention players now cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 and require a single cable (HDMI) for multi-channel audio to be enjoyed. Blu-ray has a good market penetration partially because of Sony's PS3; however Sony Music hasn't bothered selling Thriller, Miles Davis or the new Foo Fighters record to consumers on Blu-ray while Apple has been hard at work convincing the public to buy music by the download. Once again, Apple has eaten Sony's lunch despite the opportunity that is sitting out there with music in HD that would allow Sony to sell their back catalog to millions of music fans with a Blu-ray player or PS3 game console. If a kid will pay $50 for a high definition PS3 game - would he or she pop for $11.99 for the new Foo Fighters, Beyonce or Shakira record in HD? My guess is yes because at $10 per album, complete with an iPod friendly digital version, music in HD on Blu-ray is a better deal - period.
Sony Pictures has recently been rumored to be on the block. Sony's move to buy and build a meaningful movie studio was brilliant back in the day but now it looks like the Japanese electronics company may be forced to sell off some or all of Sony Pictures to raise capital to stay in other businesses. While this may be dismissed as nothing more than rumor, it's one that has persisted for some time now.
Sony's bread and butter is the Playstation 3 video game console; however this platform that helped revolutionize the world of personal gaming and launch the Blu-ray format has grown a little long in the tooth. Families like the Nintendo WII (amazingly in standard definition) because of their excellent if not overly simplistic games. Serious gamers flock to Microsoft's Xbox 360, which has wonderful support for game titles. The profit that comes from selling pricey video game titles makes it worth selling PS3s at a loss but that platform just isn't doing it for the ADHD generation.
So, Is Sony Doomed?
In a recent article in The Huffington Post, it was suggested that some of Sony's properties are doomed to fail and while they might be right in some cases, the idea that Sony would go away is not likely. The brand equity of Sony is huge around the world and will likely remain that way for years to come. But the company needs to lead with must-have technology as they have in the past. Figure out how to make a better HDTV and patent it. Take the amazingly successful Playstation 3 platform and revolutionize it for PS4 and reclaim your market in the Christmas selling season. Keep Sony Pictures and Sony Music because the company will never get those assets back again if they let them go now in a down cycle. Have the guts to sell music in HD on Blu-ray instead of pushing $28,000 audiophile speakers onto a tiny audiophile market that is already full of $28,000 speakers.
Sony is nowhere near doomed nor are they going away. They need to become leaders in selling technological fantasy, since Apple (and others) have stolen that crown from them. What Sony product can be the "It" product this Christmas? How about next Christmas? Even in a down economy with Gen Y college grads having a very hard time finding jobs - many have the $500 to $750 for an Apple iPad. It's just too cool not to have. Sony needs some of that swagger back. I think they can get there if they invest in new technology, support high resolution music and movies and market better than they have in the past three years - because the way Sony could go away or fade into irrelevance is if they bury their heads in the sand for another three years and wait for the world to come knocking on their door to buy their products. Consumers move on quickly and the time is now for Sony to right the ship.