By Stephen Schenck | November 20, 2012 7:03 AM
Sony, where did you go so fantastically wrong? For a company that once had such a stranglehold on the market for mobile electronics, it now struggles to find attention within the busy crowd of other, more successful smartphone manufacturers. As 2012 starts winding down, what can Sony think about doing in 2013 to finally help it become a more formidable player in the smartphone game?
Looking back on it, I’m not sure I was consciously aware of this at the time, but I was a serious Sony fan growing up. I had the Sony Walkman, the Sony Discman; heck, my very first CD player ever was a Sony boombox that continues to see regular use some twenty years later. My experiences with all this gear left a strong impression on my developing mind: Sony means quality. In the years that followed, though, I found fewer and fewer Sony products in my stable of gadgets, and some of the company’s behavior started to irk me. No, I don’t want an ATRAC player; I want an MP3 player. No, I don’t want to buy all-new Memory Stick flash cards, thank you very much. Sony seemed to be struggling to find its place in a quickly-changing mobile space, and as Walkmen and MP3 players gave way to smartphones, it never quite found the same footing it once had.
I don’t think the story is finished for Sony, though. While I wouldn’t hesitate to call most of its smartphones unremarkable, they’re still quite far removed from being utter rubbish. With a few tweaks to how they’re engineered, marketed, and sold, I think Sony could really become a smartphone leader. Let’s take a look at what needs to happen:
Sony’s smartphone naming strategy is an utter mess. It has the hints of a logical, organized system, but things just fall apart upon even the most cursory inspection. It should be quite easy to structure a naming system around letters of the alphabet, as Sony largely does. Maybe one end of the alphabet could be smaller phones, and the other larger phones. You could easily designate follow-ups by just tacking on a number – liked the Xperia R last year? You should check out the R2 this year.
Instead, it’s a confusing mess. Sony announced the Xperia T, V, and J at the IFA a few months back. Why not the T, U, and V? Wouldn’t that make more sense? Not if the Xperia U was already announced six months prior (alongside the Xperia P, because why the heck not?).
Sony, get your act together with smartphone naming. Take a cue from Nokia, and come up with something that’s at least internally consistent. As it stands, it takes a concerted effort to tell all your Xperia models apart; if we can’t remember which is which, how are we going to become enamored with one long enough to buy it?
Create A Sony Identity
What do you think of when I mention Sony smartphones? Drawing a blank? I wouldn’t say “innovation”, because while the company’s had some decent ideas like the Xperia Play, it’s failed to keep up with them; instead, such products feel like one-offs instead of a serious effort to deliver unique hardware. So, what then?
The number one thing I think Sony could do to help establish a clear smartphone identity would be to embrace the high-end, luxury market. Like it did with Vaio ultraportable notebooks, it needs to focus on sleek, top-shelf hardware for its Android lineup. I sort of get the feeling that it’s already trying something a little along these lines; the Xperia design sense certainly feels more refined than what we see from some other OEMs, but the full picture comes up lacking.
Here’s what you do, Sony: come out with a handful of (sensibly named) Android models, all with the latest hardware, and representing a few different popular device sizes. Future-proof the hell out of these models; as part of this high-end concept, you’re going to have to sell the idea that an investment in a Sony phone isn’t going to blow up in the user’s face when you stop releasing Android updates twelve months down the line. Commit to two years of updates, minimum, and sink the couple extra bucks into enough RAM and smartly-partitioned storage now so you avoid any embarrassments when your “premium” phone can’t upgrade to Android 5.5 next year.
You really don’t need to worry about budget models. That’s never been your strong suit, and why muddy up the brand? Make it clear that Sony means quality, and that’s what customers will once again come to take for granted in time.
I’m still not sure what 2013′s going to hold for smartphone pricing in general, but if 2012′s showed us one thing, it’s that you can still charge a premium for hardware when the customer feels he’s getting his money’s worth. Samsung gave the Note II some killer hardware and a form factor that you wouldn’t find anywhere else, and the carriers aren’t having any trouble charging $300-and-up on-contract. Give smartphone users a solid reason to believe that Sony phones are worth the extra cash, and they’ll just beg you to take their money.
Basically, I suppose Sony needs to become the BMW of smartphones. You generally know what to expect from a 3-series versus a 5-series or a 7-series, based on nothing more than the model number alone, and you know that even though you’re going to pay a bit more than you might with other manufacturers, you’re going to get some well-built hardware that’s made to last. I don’t think that attaining that kind of position would be impossible for Sony, but as it starts looking into 2013, it needs to stop the sort of haphazard firing-into-the-air that its recent Android efforts have felt like, and really come up with a well-thought-out strategy for re-taking control of its brand.