Examining Sony’s abject failure to make any impact in the personal MP3 player market, noted author and blogger David Akers concluded that Sony’s failure was largely due to unfortunate bad timing, not Sony’s strategic decisions or lack of innovative thinking.
Having examined Sony’s repeated failures to exploit their overwhelming market positions and brand magic to gain traction and market share in personal MP3 players, notebook computers, e-books, digital cameras and flat screen tvs, I believe that Sony’s failures can be attributed almost exclusively to their inability to incorporate design thinking into their product conception, development and execution and a singular reliance upon hardware appearance and technical distinction to define themselves with consumers.
That previous sentence was personally painful to write. I’ve been a Sony devotee since the early 1980′s. I’ve owned virtually every type of media device that they’ve ever created, starting with the cassette playing Walkman, the CD playing Walkman, the mini-Disc playing and recording Walkman, digital cameras, digital video cameras, ebooks and VAIO notebooks. I was a Sony fanboy before the term was even coined.
And I was perpetually disappointed.
Not by the quality of their products, which was uniformly excellent, but by their perpetual embrace of proprietary standards and refusal to open their technology ecosystem to their industrial compatriots. They did not play well with others.
Sony cameras worked only with the Sony MemoryStick, a media format adopted by exactly zero electronics manufacturers. So, while other PC users could slip their SD memory cards directly into a slot in the side of their PC, Sony users had to perform an intermediary step and find a USB dongle with a Memory Stick slot. But, since the quality of the pictures was great, I put up with the inconvenience.
Engaging with the Sony video cam was significantly worse. The camera would only connect to a PC with a FireWire port, not the universally available USB port. But, since I had a FireWire enabled VAIO, I was OK. Until I imported the video and discovered that Sony would only import the video in a proprietary Sony file format that could not be edited in any third party movie editing software program.
Their VAIO notebook introduced similar user frustrations. Although my VAIO was a gorgeously designed unit encased in a distinctive metallic purple, Sony simply refused to play well with third party accessories and ultimately had to be retired in favor of an HP tablet computer that promised to behave better.
And Sony’s recent foray into the ebook market did nothing to reclaim their previously held mantle as developers of the best designed electronics in the world. Although their ebook was visually distinctive, solidly manufactured and a pleasure to read, it enraged its users with its needlessly complex steps necessary to load content onto the ebook. Relying, as always, on a proprietary PC -based software platform to display and deliver ebook content, Sony infuriated Mac users who had no ability to load content on the Sony ebook. And even when I did load the proprietary Sony software on a Windows partition on my Mac, the software was so poorly designed, buggy and difficult to use that the entire experience of using their ebook was irreparably diminished.
It’s my decades of experience with Sony’s failure to deliver a single consumer focused, delightfully engaging and thoughtfully designed user experience that convinces me that Mr. Akers’ conclusion is dead wrong and will only provide another excuse for Sony to hide behind.
Sony’s problems with the MP3 players wasn’t that they mistimed the market. It’s that they never conceived the market that Apple imagined and created. It never occurred to them to create an absolutely delightful device AND a surrounding user environment that included finding music, listening to music, buying music, sharing music and syncing music. Apple didn’t win the MP3 player war because they timed the market better. They invented an entirely new immersive mobile music experience that just happened to rely on the iPod as the handheld component necessary to provide mobile music.
For Apple, it wasn’t about the hardware. For Sony, it’s always about nothing but the hardware.
For proof, simply look at the litany of missed opportunities that should have been directly in Sony’s sweet spot: game players as mobile phones (Sony missed it entirely, while the Apple iPhone is now the world’s largest selling portable gaming platform, eclipsing the multi-year headstart of Sony’s PSP), notebook computers (Sony’s insistence on incorporating proprietary components relegated them to single digit market share), MP3 players ( a market that Sony owned and surrendered entirely), digital cameras (again, an insistence on proprietary components limited their appeal, and they’re now an also ran), ebooks (they had the early lead with a gorgeous product that made the Kindle look like a cheap plastic toy, but again Sony’s insistence on proprietary software and file formats allowed Amazon’s Kindle to grab a dominant position they will not relinquish) digital music sales (Sony has an enormous catalog, but their feeble attempts to sell digitally were hampered by proprietary software and file formats, fanatical concern for piracy and a miserable user experience in finding, buying and syncing music.)
Every failure in every major segment can be attributed to the same institutional arrogance, intransigence and strategic ineptitude that has defined Sony for over 30 years. They believe they are wonderful technology designers because they produce visually distinctive products. But physical design simply isn’t sufficient to create an entirely new market and deliver an exceptional user experience.
Sony didn’t fail to extend their domination from portable cassette and CD players to MP3 players because of timing. They failed because they lacked vision. They perceived the market for mobile music as just another pretty device. Apple proved that the market actually wanted a thoughtful and delightful music experience. The difference between the two is software, not hardware. And Sony has never demonstrated nor developed the capacity to envision and create a software experience that delivered more than frustration, confusion and exasperation.