I posted a quote from Jeff Yang in an article he wrote for The San Francisco Chronicle titled: “How Steve Jobs ‘out-Japanned’ Japan”. It has been noted, that the article really should have been ‘how he ‘out-Sony’d’ Sony’ — much of the article is about Sony with the remaining bits about Apple and specifically Steve Jobs — the insight he draws into both Apple and Sony makes for an informational read. About a month ago I started to write a post about Sony and how it is quickly fading away in both consumer relevance and technological relevance. I got one sentence into it: “What the hell happened to Sony?”
The answer to this question starts back in 2007, when I was in Japan visiting relatives.1 I had the opportunity to go into a Sony building/store that was in Tokyo. In this store I saw one of the most impressive pieces of technology I had ever laid eyes on: a 13” (I think, metric system and Japanese writing makes it hard to remember) OLED TV/Monitor. The color and resolution was superb and the device was as thin, or thinner, than an iPad. It was really a sight to see and it cost an arm and a leg (if memory serves it was over $1000 US).
Growing up I always wanted Sony stuff — their stuff was always the best looking gadget you could buy — Sony seemed to epitomize cool. They made black computers long before it was cool to make black computers. Sony was always at the high end of the market, charging premium prices for premium design.
They were cool.
I don’t know when it happened, but if you browse Sony’s website you get a clear picture that they are selling mid-range products with mid-range design. The biggest design element that Sony uses is applying color with reckless abandon to all of their devices. All of the prices seem to be run of the mill, nothing too expensive and nothing too cheap. It all seems so very average.
There is no one thing you can point your finger at as the problem, except perhaps their CEO. You don’t keep a great company great by saying things like this:
No — you have to launch [it]. It’s there. Competitive pressures — you read in the papers, so-and-so is the first to release 3-D TV. You don’t want to be the last.
—Sony’s CEO Sir Howard Stringer [source: Jeff Yang for the San Francisco Chronicle]
Compare this to what Jeff Yang explains as the idea that Sony’s founder Masaru Ibuka instilled Sony with:
That statement was simple and to the point: “Sony will be the company that is most known for transforming the global image of Japanese goods as being of poor quality.” It defined Sony by what it would not do — make bad products — making it something of an omission statement, if you will.
I don’t quote that snippet to imply in any way that Sony has started making poor quality products, but I think they make very average products today. The current crop of leaders at Sony are after two things: profits and market share. I don’t think they truly care which one they get, so long as they get one of them.
The CEO needs to go. Hell, the senior management needs to go.
Sony may still make products that are durable and pass Q.A., but what they don’t make is products with quality design. They haven’t made something like that in quite a while.
I used to waste hours in college looking at Dynamism as they would have the latest computers available in Japan for import to the U.S. We are talking about spending $500-1000 in marked up prices to get the latest cool notebook. Now you browse that site and you have to be left with the feeling of: so what. I remember how cool the Carbon Fiber sony laptops used to look.
Sony should be the Windows supplier of beautiful computers — instead they let Apple take that away from them with Bootcamp. The competition is between Apple and the PC world, with Sony being lumped with the likes of Dell as just another PC manufacturer. Where Dell used to represent the anti-Sony — Sony has now found themselves lumped in the category of just another computer maker.
Ibuka has to be rolling over in his grave.
I just spent about 30 minutes of my time looking through Sony’s US website to see if there was anything I wanted to buy. I came across this:
I think we all now know exactly what the problem with Sony is.2
[Updated: 2.1.11 at 8:37 AM]
A reader pointed out that he thinks the main mistake was moving to hire a ‘western’ CEO and not a Japanese CEO. I have spent most of my life in the Japanese culture and with that mindset this sentiment makes complete sense to me. There is a huge difference in mindset between the western world and Japanese culture.
For example Japanese employees typically all do a serious of stretches and a light work out at the beginning of each work day — a western CEO might not think that is important. There is one danger in this line of thinking: if Stringer has this knowledge base then the only problem would be that he is not Japanese — but I don’t think that this is fundamentally a problem. So long as the CEO understands AND respects the Japanese way the company should still be doing fine.
Sony is not doing fine, so either Stringer does not understand the Japanese culture, or he simply doesn’t respect it.