The Decline and Fall of Sony

There is an intriguing piece on Forbes regarding which PC manufacturer is the next to tumble, now that HP is going to spin off or possibly sell their PC business. One company that gets some attention from the author is Sony, and that got me thinking about them. For me, Sony is pretty much a “used to be” company for me. The only product they have that I use with any regularity is the Playstation 3. I use it both for games and as a DVD and Blu-ray player, and I really like my PS3. Beyond that, though, I use very little or nothing from Sony.

I was, at one point, a very big Sony fan. As soon as I could afford one, I bought a Sony Walkman when I was in university (the small one that, when collapsed, was about the size of a cassette case) to replace the generic Walkman clone I used before it. That thing went with me everywhere for about 2 years. I eventually got a portable Sony stereo which was my music source when I worked in an office. I wanted a Sony Trinitron TV, but couldn’t afford them at the time, and was hoping to have a Sony stereo in my apartment. During the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s, they had products that were both technologically advanced and came with great industrial design. They were leaders in many ways, and many other companies used them as a benchmark for the product’s features and designs.

However, something happened. They faltered and lost their way. They had a small number of cool products in the late 1990’s, mainly the Vaio notebooks and the Playstation. I had a Vaio Z505 notebook for a while, and while the purple colour could be a bit much, it was a very, very thin and light machine (presaging the MacBook Air in many ways). It was a great machine to travel with. But their TVs and stereos weren’t as compelling, and beyond the one family of notebooks, the rest of their PC offerings were merely “okay” in terms of features and pretty expensive for what you got.

Sony continued to try to push music formats that they invented, to their detriment. The MiniDisc, while interesting, was a non-starter for me. I had far too much music on CD (although nowhere near what I have now), and having to repurchase the library or try to convert it was too much work. I looked at MD players a couple of times, but the time to convert and the price of the devices just wasn’t attractive to me. I stuck with portable CD players.

Then there were their feeble attempts at entering the MP3 player market. Their first tries in this market were disasters. None of them actually supported MP3 directly. You had to convert your MP3s to their format (which took forever), and most of their devices has precious little storage. I bought one of their stick-like players off a friend for cheap, tried it a couple of times, and then gave up on it. Eventually, I bought an iPod and I never looked back.

The Playstation console, and its follow-on iterations, were certainly seismic events in the gaming world, although each for different reasons. The first model was a preview of what was to come. The PS2 was the king of consoles for the longest time, and Sony continues to sell them in rather impressive volumes. The PS3 was a bit of a leader, technologically, but took quite a while before sales started to pick up. It is still number 3 overall, and was outsold by its older sibling for several years, and hasn’t had anywhere near the impact on gaming that the Wii has had. I still use my quite regularly. I prefer the catalog of games compared to the Wii, although there are some Xbox 360 games that I wish would come to the PS3 sooner. I also use mine as a DVD and Blu-ray player. When I looked at the price of the higher-end models, and given that I was going to get a PS3 for games anyways, combining the functions just made economic sense. The machine is actually quite good at both an up-converting DVD player and as a Blu-ray machine.

The Playstation Portable was also something of a bright light in an otherwise uninteresting line of products. I got one of the first generation machines (using reward points), and quite liked it, more than the Nintendo TS. Again, I preferred the games on the PSP, and I found I could use it more comfortably. I liked it enough that I bought a PSP Go, which I used for a year or so. But, once I started to get good games on the iPhone and later the iPad, the PSP Go has sat unused for over a year now. I’m not likely to bother with the PSP replacement. Between my iPhone and iPad, I get productivity, communications and entertainment. The PSP would only be for games, and I carry enough junk when I travel. I don’t need another device (along with the charger) in my luggage.

I thought their decision to resurrect the Walkman name was actually pathetic and a bit desperate. Their sad attempts to trade on nostalgia didn’t do anything for me. There wasn’t anything really leading-edge about the devices (unlike some models of the original Walkman), and their industrial designs were pretty dull and uninteresting. This was probably the biggest indicator that Sony was trying to coast. Their Vaio line went from being cool and expensive to just being expensive. I toyed briefly with getting a Sony when I needed a Windows notebook recently, but went with Dell instead. The Dell was smaller and more powerful machine for less. The Sony TV’s aren’t any more interesting or compelling than anything I can get from Samsung or Toshiba. Basically, Sony doesn’t have anything, in my mind, that stands out (in a good way) from the rest of the products they compete against.

During the 1980’s and into the 1990’s, Sony was, in some ways, what Apple is today: products that were sometimes leading edge, but also products that looked good and were enjoyable to use. They were cool. They were the benchmark that many other consumer electronics products were judged by. Now, all they have are largely rehashed and dull designs, none of which stand out either technologically or aesthetically. Unless something changes, Sony’s best days are behind them, and behind them by a couple of decades. They used to be leaders. They aren’t anymore.