Once upon a time, Sony was Apple. For decades, the Japanese consumer electronics giant was known for its innovation as much as Apple is today. It commercialised the transistor radio with the TR-63 and popularised the console gaming market with the PlayStation.
It pioneered the compact disc (with Philips) and invented Blu-ray. Heck, it singlehandedly created the portable music device market with the Walkman, two decades before Steve Jobs reinvented it for the digital age with Apple’s iPod.
Sony was known for quality, which allowed it to maintain healthy margins. Demand for the company’s products underpinned Japan’s export-led economic boom between the 1960s and 1980s.
But Sony squandered its lead — and markets like digital music players that it should have dominated. Business magazines have featured countless cover stories on what went wrong. Management tomes have been written on the subject.
For years now, Sony has reported brutal financial losses as it failed to come up with compelling new products. (A strong yen compounded the situation.)
Quietly, however, under the leadership of Sony’s new CEO, Kazuo Hirai — he took the reins from Briton Howard Stringer in April 2012 — the company has begun churning out one head-turning product after another. From cellphones to laptops, and from tablets to consoles, Sony appears to have rediscovered its winning formula of old. And sales numbers and forecasts suggest strong recovery in core areas such as televisions, where it has struggled in a cut-throat market, and in smartphones.
Last week, it reported its first full-year profit in four years – and told shareholders it expects further improvements in the current financial year. Net income for 2013 was ¥43bn (R4,4bn), from a loss of ¥457bn (R46,3bn) a year ago. Since the beginning of the year, Sony’s share price has almost doubled.
The first in a string of new products that has begun to pique consumers’ interest again is its new Xperia Z smartphone. The company hasn’t had a smash-hit smartphone product in years — its now-ended alliance with Sweden’s Ericsson never really went anywhere. But the Xperia Z has won rave reviews around the world for its ruggedised, waterproof and super-thin and stylish design. Sony has a long way to go if it’s going to beat Samsung’s momentum with the Galaxy range, but the Xperia Z is right up there and competing with the best in smartphones right now.
Another product that has got people talking is Sony’s incredibly slim and lightweight Xperia Z tablet. Some reviewers say it’s the first Android-powered tablet that poses a real threat to Apple’s dominance with the iPad. It certainly runs rings around most of the non-Apple competition.
And the hits keep on coming. In notebooks, where Sony has long had a reputation for building lightweight and ultraportable machines, it has outdone itself with its new Vaio laptops: the Duo and Pro models, which come in 11-inch and 13-inch models.
For years now, anyone looking for an ultraportable computer would have been hard pressed not to give serious consideration to the MacBook Air over just about anything else. PC manufacturers have struggled to develop compelling Windows-based alternatives to the Apple line-up. That’s finally starting to change, and Sony is leading the charge with its new Vaios.
Of course, the company faces a number of very strong competitors in all of the markets in which it competes: Samsung in television, Apple and Samsung in smartphones, and Microsoft in gaming consoles. Although Sony won a crucial PR battle with Microsoft recently when both companies announced their next-generation gaming consoles — the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One — it’s far from clear who will win the war in the long term. The two raced each other to a dead heat in the current console generation.
After just 15 months at the helm, it appears Sony’s new boss has found the key to the technology wizardry that made the company such a formidable competitor in consumer electronics for so many years. Sony, it seems, has rediscovered its mojo. Hip hip Hirai.
- Duncan McLeod is editor of TechCentral. Engage with him on Twitter
- This column was first published in the Sunday Times