Sony boss rues losing to iPod, on guard against iPhone

Posted:
in iPod + iTunes + AppleTV edited January 2014
In a rare candid interview, Sony's chief executive expresses regret over his company's blown opportunity to one-up the iPod years in advance -- and vowed not to repeat the same mistakes with the appearance of the iPhone.



The frontman for the Japanese electronics behemoth's, Sir Howard Stringer, admitted in a yet-to-be-broadcast TV appearance that his corporation's stubbornness in its design philosophy likely cost it a head start in digital music.



Speaking to CEO Exchange, Stringer noted that upon his taking the helm in 2005, virtually every branch of Sony's empire was a "silo" -- sheltered from one another and interested only in how one of its products trumped another.



"All the divisions were in their own little worlds," he said.



The fenced-off approach ultimately doomed Sony to squandering its one and best chance at capturing the fledgling digital music player business, according to the executive. Protectionism by the company's music label (now Sony BMG) virtually guaranteed that engineers working on what would become the Network Walkman were blocked at every turn from creating the jukebox they wanted.



Such a delay is an especially sore point for Stringer: just as he took hold of the American division in 1997, he was forced to watch as the company froze its digital media efforts and shut itself out from a market that would later be dominated by Apple.



"We were working with IBM on electronic music distribution and could have put this out five years earlier [than the iPod]," he complained. "But we couldn't get our people to understand software. And we are a music company. They saw digital media, panicked and didn't like it."



The result created Sony's ill-fated ATRAC format, which was used by the electronics maker's Connect music store and which for years was the only choice for storing songs on its Walkman players. The company only reluctantly changed course and allowed for MP3 (and later, AAC) tracks once Apple had already taken control of the industry.



In his interview, however, Stringer was adamant that the fate of the Sony-Ericsson cellphone partnership would be different in the battle against the iPhone. Instead of stonewalling, the Japanese-Swedish partnership has already warmed up to the concept of music on phones and has seen the benefits through outstanding sales, especially in Europe. Apple, the Sony leader said, has only "spotted a trend" that Sony-Ericsson identified years before.



Regardless, the chief was careful not to exhibit the same hubris that left Sony holding merely a fraction of what was once a commanding lead in music. To him, ruling out Apple's determination under its current leadership would be a potentially fatal mistake.



"I would never sit up here and say I'm not worried about Steve Jobs," Stringer cautioned. "I wouldn't bet against Steve."
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Comments

  • robin hoodrobin hood Posts: 513member
    Here in Ireland, Sony Ericsson's range of Walkman phones are already putting a serious dent in iPod sales. Especially with the iPhone not supporting 3G until 2008, as well as not having a very good camera, at least in this market I see Apple struggling to compete with Sony as far as the iPhone is concerned.



    Apple will have a tough time in Europe if they don't get it right the first time. They're already late to the party.
  • kd86kd86 Posts: 42member
    It's nice to see that at the very least Stringer has some realistic concerns where Apple, Steve, and the iPhone are concerned and isn't trying to act like they have a superior product already out as Ballmer did with Windows mobile devices. Good grief.
  • bacillusbacillus Posts: 313member
    Just another instance of where a walled garden (Mini Disk + ATRAC) approach ended badly. Apple should heed this warning with the iPhone and make an SDK for it freely avliable on DAY ONE. If they make it difficult to near impossible for people to make apps for it, then they are pissing away a real opportunity. In short, they are late to the dance, and they can’t afford to be picky.
  • zwebenzweben Posts: 75member
    Sony Ericsson makes very nice phones. If anyone can beat the iPhone in terms of hardware, i'd say it's Sony. The thing that, even after all this time, no one seems to be able to do is even apporach the quality of Apple's software for these devices.



    I've seen so many beautifully designed MP3 players and phones that look amazing on the outside, and yet you start using the device and the interface is horribe. I think it's pretty well understood that it's the combination of good software and good hardware that made the iPod a success, so why has no one been able to pull off anything good in the software area?



    I think the standards have been set so low that it's going to take a while for everyone to get off their butts and start making something genuinely good.
  • zwebenzweben Posts: 75member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Bacillus View Post


    Just another instance of where a walled garden (Mini Disk + ATRAC) approach ended badly. Apple should heed this warning with the iPhone and make an SDK for it freely avliable on DAY ONE. If they make it difficult to near impossible for people to make apps for it, then they are pissing away a real opportunity. In short, they are late to the dance, and they can?t afford to be picky.



    I agree. Much of the allure of a smartphone comes from the ability to add third party software. Even though the iPhone's included software looks very nice, they don't have an app for everything, and to cripple such a powerful phone from using its full potential is disappointing. I really hope they change their minds.
  • addaboxaddabox Posts: 12,667member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Zweben View Post


    Sony Ericsson makes very nice phones. If anyone can beat the iPhone in terms of hardware, i'd say it's Sony. The thing that, even after all this time, no one seems to be able to do is even apporach the quality of Apple's software for these devices.



    I've seen so many beautifully designed MP3 players and phones that look amazing on the outside, and yet you start using the device and the interface is horribe. I think it's pretty well understood that it's the combination of good software and good hardware that made the iPod a success, so why has no one been able to pull off anything good in the software area?



    I think the standards have been set so low that it's going to take a while for everyone to get off their butts and start making something genuinely good.



    That's the thing about Sony. They have absolutely nailed a certain type of design that looks appealingly purposeful and grown-up and has a "machined out of a single block of titanium" vibe.



    But then you go to use it and you realize that all those solid looking buttons are hard to navigate, and the software seems madly complex, and that it does things that you would never want it to do and doesn't do things that you do.
  • tbagginstbaggins Posts: 2,306member
    Quote:

    In his interview, however, Stringer was adamant that the fate of the Sony-Ericsson cellphone partnership would be different in the battle against the iPhone. Instead of stonewalling, the Japanese-Swedish partnership has already warmed up to the concept of music on phones and has seen the benefits through outstanding sales, especially in Europe. Apple, the Sony leader said, has only "spotted a trend" that Sony-Ericsson identified years before.



    Yes and no, Sir Howard. It's more likely Apple saw a threat to the iPod in terms of multifunction devices (i.e. music cellphones) before music cellphones ever started becoming fashionable (which is pretty recently) and decided to make one in order to cover both sides of the portable music market. Tech pundits have been predicting the onslaught of music cellphones against the iPod for a long time now... wasn't exactly a secret to anyone.



    Apple's likely been thinking of taking this market since before the ROKR began development in 2004. The first Walkman cellphone was announced in 2005. Sony has little, if any, claim to being more visionary here than Apple. Apple just spent time learning the market with the ROKR experience, that's all, which enabled them to develop the far-superior iPhone.



    Now all they have to do is give us a 3G version.



    .
  • tbagginstbaggins Posts: 2,306member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Zweben View Post


    I've seen so many beautifully designed MP3 players and phones that look amazing on the outside, and yet you start using the device and the interface is horrible. I think it's pretty well understood that it's the combination of good software and good hardware that made the iPod a success, so why has no one been able to pull off anything good in the software area?



    I think its the fault of a 'design by committee' mentality more than anything. Few companies have the equivalent of Apple's structure, where Steve Jobs (who has good instincts when it comes to physical design and UIs) just rolls on into the meeting and hollars, "That SUCKS! FIX IT!"... and then they do. 8)



    Nearly everywhere else, you have to keep everyone happy. The result is 'groupthink' mediocre products.



    .
  • eaieai Posts: 417member
    I've got a Sony phone and its good enough. As others have said, its not perfect - it provides way too many options in often illogical ways, all orientated around one standard menu style. I think thats where the iPhone can shine - it has a large enough screen to offer interesting and memorably different interfaces to each area of the device making it easier to use.



    As with any company like sony, making their Nth phone, its easy to get stuck with what you've done before, whereas Apple have nothing to base their preconceptions on (except the competition).
  • cnocbuicnocbui Posts: 3,146member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Robin Hood View Post


    Here in Ireland, Sony Ericsson's range of Walkman phones are already putting a serious dent in iPod sales. Especially with the iPhone not supporting 3G until 2008, as well as not having a very good camera, at least in this market I see Apple struggling to compete with Sony as far as the iPhone is concerned.



    Apple will have a tough time in Europe if they don't get it right the first time. They're already late to the party.



    How do you know SE phones are doing that? I have both - the phone isn't even close to being a substitute for the iPod. You can't plug decent headphones into it without a 3rd party adapter - the supplied ones are a joke for music and the battery and storage capacities are too low.



    Everyone seems to forget how good Steve jobs and Apple are at surprises. The iPhone was a huge surprise - even when there were innumerable rumors about it prior to its officail unveiling, it still managed to be way ahead of most peoples expectations.



    I think when it goes on sale there will be more surprises - like the camera might have been upgraded and perhaps it will have 3G or the European release models will. After all, the EU ought to be the more important market given there about 161m more people than in the US.



    In short, I don't think the phone we saw will necessarily be the same as the one we get.
  • frykefryke Posts: 217member
    let's just hope that this first iPhone will be replaced by an UMTS, 3.2 MP back and 1 MP front camera iPhone II _before_ it hits Europe. else they'll have to sell it for less than half the price with a _one_ year contract if they want to sell any.
  • modzmodz Posts: 13member
    Hey Robin Hood: Got a link showing how SE phones are putting a 'serious dent' in iPod sales? No? What, you mean you made it up? And when it comes out, we'll see about Apple's 2MP camera quality. Having seen the results of some 3+MP cameras (in Japan anyway), I'm not that impressed - nowhere near the quality of an old Canon 2MP point-and-shoot of mine. There's more than mega-pixels involved in pic quality and it's not like Apple don't have experience in putting out cameras.



    Bacillus and Zweben: No-one said there would never be 3rd party support, just not right out of the gate. I mean - I dunno, I wasn't around when the first Symbian phones were released but was there immediate SDK availability then? Anyone know? It's rumoured that Apple will release SDKs but will also enforce quality control. That sounds more like it to me.
  • nagrommenagromme Posts: 2,834member
    Ah, yes. The patented multi-touch iPhone is just "spotting a trend" years late, while Sony was on the ball all along.



    So... why doesn't Sony have something like the iPhone about to come out?



    (And yes, the specs of the iPhone will continue to grow. Any buzzword or number you don't see now--like 3G--you will see later as costs fall and as the iPhone enters new markets. Remember the original iPod? Look how it advanced in features-per-dollar. But you have to start somewhere, and with the iPhone, Apple's starting with something no other company can touch--unless portability and ease-of-use don't matter of course... but as the iPod shows, they do )
  • solipsismsolipsism Posts: 25,726member
    I actually have gained back some of my lost respect for Sony.
  • modzmodz Posts: 13member
    Also - anyone who thinks they won't offer 3G in appropriate markets wasn't listening when Jobs said 3G support was coming. Approriate markets means - at this stage - Europe and Asia not the U.S. so all you Euros need to put away your "If they don't include 3G it'll fail blah blah" statements.
  • the cool gutthe cool gut Posts: 1,714member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by solipsism View Post


    I actually have gained back some of my lost respect for Sony.



    It has taken some time, but it does seem like they are turning the ship around.
  • slewisslewis Posts: 2,080member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by the cool gut View Post


    Quote:
    Originally Posted by solipsism View Post


    I actually have gained back some of my lost respect for Sony.



    It has taken some time, but it does seem like they are turning the ship around.



    Ditto



    The other day I was drooling over their Laptops....



    Sebastian
  • ipeonipeon Posts: 1,122member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post


    In his interview, however, Stringer was adamant that the fate of the Sony-Ericsson cellphone partnership would be different in the battle against the iPhone.



    Ya right! Sony makes great products - I do like their product design and quality. However, just like most other companies in the high tech industry, Sony just can't get it right when it comes to UI, that's what set's the iPhone apart. Matter of fact, the reason for the iPod's success is it's UI.
  • tundraboytundraboy Posts: 1,432member
    As a lot of other posters observed, Sony makes great hardware but can't distinguish shit from software. I don't know if it is possible for any organization to overnight acquire the sort of institutional knowledge needed to write great software. [I mean MS has been working at it for decades now and they also can't distinguish shit from software.] That's why it's probably too late for Sony now.



    Apple has figured out, perhaps by accident, that the way to significantly reduce consumer electronics complexity is to manage all your content and devices on a single, user-friendly software interface. And iTunes is already way ahead in this game with an installed base in the tens of millions. I can't see how Sony or Microsoft can catch up with their own content and device management interfaces. If I'm already using iTunes to manage my iPod and my content why would I want to open up a separate interface to manage my streaming video? Or my cell phone? or my (name your future Apple device)?



    Sony & MS are trying to promote their game consoles as a home-entertainment hub. Oh yeah, like the rest of us non-gamers are just raring to spend the time to figure out those game pads. Not to mention the $400 to $600 for a game console that will never ever play a single game as long as we own it.
  • macgregormacgregor Posts: 1,434member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Robin Hood View Post


    Here in Ireland, Sony Ericsson's range of Walkman phones are already putting a serious dent in iPod sales. Especially with the iPhone not supporting 3G until 2008, as well as not having a very good camera, at least in this market I see Apple struggling to compete with Sony as far as the iPhone is concerned.



    Apple will have a tough time in Europe if they don't get it right the first time. They're already late to the party.



    I didn't know that the Sony Ericsson Walkman phones had multi-touch, a real web browser with smart magnification, that they had visual voicemail, that they had 3.5" screens and multiple programmable key mapping, that they run GoogleMaps and have CoverFlow, an iPhoto-like app running on OSX AND iTunes!?!?!? Gosh Apple is so late to that program!!



    Sure those phones might be popular now, but I'm tired of people being so blind to what the innovations of the iPhone are that they can't even compare devices intelligently.



    The key will be that media in all of those iPods and future AppleTV's and online will be also syched to the iPhone. iTunes and the GUI are the thing that makes Sony worried. Until Sony can make their own OS and music store and not have to work with and fight MS (see Zune) at the same time - they are at a disadvantage for real innovation.
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