Sony's sad decline

Originally written for eVent! magazine [ep] on 04/13/06.

Sony used to own music.  If you wanted a consumer audio player, whether a portable or a home stereo, Sony was almost always what pretty much anyone would consider first.  A consumer might not end up buying a Sony, opting for something a little cheaper or a little more expensive, but Sony was always part of the equation.  It was, if you will, the gold standard of audio.

The Walkman changed the way we listen to music, and Sony expanded that brand for years into the Discman when CDs replaced cassette tapes.  My home stereo is a Sony, and Sony stores still thrive on the cache of cool that the Sony name provides.  Sadly though Sony has started to suck, and I don’t just mean it’s not as cool as it used to be, I mean it literally is just missing out, and loosing the edge that it once had.

It all happened with the iPod, Apple’s iPod.  When a computer company moved into the audio space that up until that point Sony controlled alarm bells should have been going off.  Instead Sony waited until Apple got a firm grip as the dominant player in the digital music market before even attempting to offer a reasonable challenge to them.  When they did it was, well lame.

The problem is while Sony, like Apple, for the most part makes beautiful and visually appealing products unlike Apple they don’t know how to apply that design skill to user interfaces.  The iPod is simple and elegant both because it’s got a pretty outer casing and because the control interface and menu system is intuitive and easy to use.  Sony still has not released a player that can match that.

MP3 players are not the only place Sony drops the ball, and they’ve been doing it more and more these days.  A big part of Sony’s recent success has been the Playstation and the Playstation 2.  Sony was able to enter a new market, video games, and out perform companies like Nintendo and Sega who had been around for years.  Realizing that it was all about the games, Sony had more and better games for the Playstation than either Nintendo or Sega managed with their game stations.  Sega, after the unsuccessful Dreamcast system, pulled out of making a video game system altogether because of the competition from Sony.  The only true competitor to the Playstation 2 was the late arriving XBox from Microsoft, another software company entering Sony’s playing field.

Now with the Playstation 3 and XBox 360 Sony and Microsoft are set to fight over dominance in the home gaming market in the next generation of machines.  Sony won the last round by being around longer, though the XBox was arguably the better machine.  Now the XBox 360, though still having supply problems that make it hard to find on store shelves, is selling well.

And the Playstation 3?  Well actually the Playstation 3 has yet to be released.  Sony delaying the PS3 until they can integrate the next generation of movie players, Blueray, into the game system has given Microsoft the advantage.  The XBox 360 is a slick beautiful machine, and I don’t like saying that about a Microsoft product.  It’s also not too badly priced.  Okay so it’s a tad expensive but compared to estimates and rumours of what the PS3 is going to cost, it’s a bargain. 

Sony’s also having trouble with their Playstation Portable (PSP), which while a wonderful device is not exactly the miracle drug that Sony thought it was going to be.  The first mistake they made was believing that people would be willing to pay more for movies to buy them on Sony’s Universal Media Discs (UMD) that so far can only be played by the PSP.  The ability to watch movies was one of the selling features of the PSP, but Sony hamstringed it and made it both hard and expensive to do.

My home stereo is a Sony.  It’s a wonderful piece of audio hardware and I’ve enjoyed it everyday since I bought it.  I love Sony, and I want them to succeed, it’s just that right now they seem to be doing everything they can do to not.