Sony and Apple have become natural competitors over the years. It is therefore somewhat ironic that Steve Jobs reportedly used Sony as his model when rebuilding his company - because what resulted was far more successful than the original.
This does, however, suggest if there was one company that could take on Apple and do so successfully it would be Sony.
Yet Sony has failed to take a leadership position over Apple in terms of music players and personal computers, even though the Japanese-based company fielded more variety over time, was often first to market and has had a number of absolutely beautiful designs.
The latest S1 and S2 tablets are a case in point: stunning to look, better designed ergonomically (at least one), but still expected to fall far short.
Sony’s Historic Weaknesses Sony remains the closest to Apple when it comes to hardware design. However, the corporation often favors design even more strongly than Apple does and that bias tends to cause them to underperform.
For example, in 2004 Sony brought out their X505 which, in graphite, was far sleeker and lighter than the MacBook air which followed around 4 years later.
Now, I actually did a comparison on the X505 with the Sharp MM20 way back then. Sharp is another company that partially modeled its consumer business after Sony, and while Sony product was better it just couldn't justify the whopping $1,500 to $2,500 premium (for the graphite model).
Sony built art - but blew out the price point and wasn't able to afford much marketing. As a result, few even remember that the X505 beat the vastly more popular MacBook Air to market. Another example: Sony had eBook readers on the market long before Amazon launched the Kindle. But it was difficult to find books for them, and I personally never actually found a book I wanted to read on mine.
Amazon, which is clearly not known for hardware, eclipsed the Sony reader because it had a vastly larger book store and their product connected wirelessly on day one, allowing consumers to easily shop and download books.
In contrast, Sony initially required users to buy the book on a PC and then cable sync the eBook reader to get the book onto the device. But the biggest miss I can recall is MP3 players, because Sony actually boasted the personal music player that was most popular before the iPad: The Walkman.
This popular device - which initially played cassettes and eventually CDs - dominated the market of the late 1990s. But when Sony moved to the MP3 format, while their devices were vastly smaller and arguably more attractive than the iPod, they were horrid products to use.
You see, Sony has a music arm and there was obvious concern people would pirate the music once it was digitized, prompting the company to smother their early MP3 devices with massive security. While I’m sure few pirated the music, Sony’s offerings were clearly obliterated by Apple. Sony historically builds attractive products, but they typically suck at usability and often don’t hit critical price points. They seem to learn over and over again that building 80% of a great product isn’t a formula for success and, I’m afraid, the S1 and S2 are no different. Sony’s S1 and S2: From a hardware design perspective, these two products are nicely differentiated from the iPad. The SI is a tablet with a curved design that should be vastly more comfortable to hold and is likely, given its size, to offer a better battery life.
The S2 is a foldable design similar to the troubled Acer Iconia laptop but with smaller screens. Like Vizio is doing with their upcoming Android phone and tablet, and Pioneer is doing with the iPad, Sony is connecting the SI to their TV line and allowing it to become a super remote control. The tablets will also apparently play PSX titles. However, given the current focus on HD quality games and the fact these devices use the very powerful Nvidia Tegra 2 processor you have to wonder why Sony didn’t choose newer titles.
Many of the games, for their day, were very good but are folks really going to buy a tablet because it plays games that were designed before HD TV? They obviously will play Sony certified current games, but you obviously have to wonder how many existing Android games will be allowed on the device. Gaming is important particularly to the S2 which can be configured to emulate a Sony controller. But touch screens typically aren't that great for twitch games, as they aren't fast or reliable enough. And I doubt buyers will be forgiving if they get a gaming product that doesn't work well and lacks a comprehensive library of current games. Wrapping Up: Android an Advantage? This is clearly a Sony experience product so Android doesn’t hurt the offering. Nevertheless, I question whether it is wise to limit access to Android applications since that would help level the playing field for Sony.
In the end, I’m struck with the fact that while very attractive - like earlier Sony offerings - there are enough questionable decisions to make me wonder who will actually buy one.
The final test for me is if I had $600 to spend would I buy an S1, S2 or an iPad and I’d still buy an iPad 2. I think this is an interesting offering but without a Sony TV the remote control capability isn’t that interesting and I have no real desire to play PlayStation 1, or for that matter PlayStation 2, games otherwise I’d break those systems out (I’m sure they are stored someplace). In the end, this feels like yet another repeat of an old mistake: excellent hardware damaged by content limitations and user experience. While Android doesn’t hurt, Sony appears to be preventing it from helping much either.
If Sony wants to really play here, they need to up their game significantly. The hardware guys are doing their job, the rest - not so much. The revised Xoom sales figures of 25K (down from 100K) suggest this market isn’t very forgiving if you don’t get these things right.
Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts. Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them. Currently, he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.