Sony’s decline: Have they eaten the poison Apple?

Sony-and-Apple“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana, 1905

For today’s history lesson, we’re going to look at two of the biggest names in the tech industry that have risen and fallen in complimentary distribution with one another since the 1980’s. As one company climbed to the top, the other plummeted but now the tides have changed.

I’m talking of course about Sony and Apple, two companies with storied histories that bear some key similarities to each other. In the successes and failures of each company, the brilliance and blunders seem to be passed back and forth. In order to move forward towards the future, we must look back at the past; so let’s take it from the top.

The 1980’s were a strange time in America; MTV, big hair, and the Brat Pack are some of the first things that come to mind when I think of that decade. Of course, the 1980’s also ushered in a new era of technology, and Apple and Sony were at the forefront. In the beginning of the 1980’s, Apple came out strong with a record breaking IPO and the Macintosh computer. Things quickly went south for the computer giant, as infighting and a decline in sales ultimately saw Steve Jobs leave the company in 1985; beginning what many would refer to as “the dark years” at Apple. During that same time, Sony had started the 1980’s with dismal profits during a global recession that saw a drop in electronics sales.

One of the things that saved Sony was its creativity and drive to pioneer new technologies. While it lost the “format wars” between VHS and Betamax, it was able to move past and eventually develop technologies such as the Compact Disc and Walkman. Similarly, it branched out beyond consumer electronics and got into the music and movie publishing industries; creating a revenue stream that would allow it to profit several times over from single products. Its latest demise, however, came from the company aggressively expanding into new businesses and technologies with little communication or collaboration between the departments. The question now is “Will they bounce back?”

Apple was able to bounce back from those “dark years” when Steve Jobs came back. Under his leadership, the company was able to re-focus and re-establish its brand. They were able to focus on creating great products from top to bottom, coupled with a user experience that was second to none. If Sony wishes to recover in the same way Apple did, then perhaps they’ll do the same. Sony’s reach is a bit broader than Apple’s so in order to do that, they’ll need to increase the communication and support between departments. They have all the parts they need to return to the top, they just have to deliver what the customers want. Apple delivered things that consumers wanted before they even knew that they wanted them. Sony’s approach as of late has been more stagnant, where they wait for something to come out and find a way to replicate it.

The sting of a few hard blows to a company can send it reeling and certainly bruise some egos. Sony needs to take a whiff of the smelling salts and come out of the corner swinging. Once they return to their roots of innovation, creativity, and quality they’ll be sure to see success once again.


Why Smart Phones Won’t Take Down The PS Vita

The question that was raised at the initial announcement of the PS Vita was whether or not a dedicated mobile gaming unit could survive in a world where casual mobile games on smart phones exist. The answer is of course it can and there are several key reasons why.

To set the foundation I will again remind our readers of the jobs to be done philosophy as laid out by Clayton Christensen. Consumers hire products for specific jobs or tasks. Consumers acquire products to fill a void or fulfill a need. Smart phones are not hired to be gaming devices. They are hired to be communication devices. Browsing the web, playing games, running other non-communication apps are, all icing on the cake but the core reason this product is purchased or hired is to communicate. Dedicated mobile gaming devices like the PS Vita on the other hand are hired to be gaming platforms. And because of this the Vita is built intentionally for gamers, where smart phones are not. Two specific areas where this stands out are with the physical gaming buttons and battery life.

Physical Gaming Buttons
Because the smart phone lacks physical gaming buttons, my view is that it is a casual gaming platform. Meaning not something you will sit and play games for hours upon hours. I am not saying this is not possible only that for those who taking gaming seriously and consider themselves core gamers, the smart phone is not the device of choice. Rather, gamers sit for hours and play PS3, XBOX 360, etc, and they are used to the nuances of physical control buttons and believe for many immersive games they are necessary.

I have tried to play many of my favorite console games on my iPhone or iPad like EA’s Madden Football, or FPS games like Modern Warfare and they simply are not the same.

The PS Vita provides the most comprehensive console experience on a mobile device that I have encountered yet. It brings a full fledged gaming experience that hard core gamers know and love. Sony has also some great features that tie the PS Vita into their Playstation ecosystem. Things like online multiplayer gaming where you can play online with friends who are playing on the PS3 while you play on the PS Vita and vice-versa. Or transfering saved games or pausing points while playing PS3 and picking up where you left off with the Vita. Those are the kinds of holistic gaming experiences that get me excited about the state of the video game industry again.

Battery Life
The next big stand out is battery life. Even if we were to make the argument that the smart phone could become a central gaming platform for hardcore gamers the device would still have a battery life issue. The simple truth is you can not sit and play a game on your smart phone for hours upon hours and expect the device to last all day. Considering consumers hire smart phones to be communcation devices, I doubt that the trade off to play games and not be able to communicate becase of a dead device by the afternoon would be worth it. Again it comes back to the role or the job the product is built, designed, then hired to accomplish.

The PS Vita has good battery life considering the large OLED screen and great graphics. In my relatively conservative hour and half to two hour a day gaming sessions with the Vita I could go easily go several days without charging. In fact the bulk of my use with the device came during my recent trip to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress. I had many long plane rides and the Vita never died on me. In fact I only needed to charge it twice the entire trip of 6 days.

This is why there is a role for specific products built for a specific purpose. These devices may not appeal to everyone but they appeal to those who know they need it. I view this similar as a truck. Not everyone needs one but those who do could not work / live without it.

The bottom line is that there are a large group of consumers out there who have no desire to play video games for long lengths of time. Therefore a device like a smart phone will easily cater to those non-core gamers who want play games casually and to kill time. However, for those who are hard core gamers, and they know it, a smart phone will not suffice, and they know it.

You could however make an interesting case that the iPad or an Android tablet paired with a game controller could meet the needs of the core gamer. I could go for that argument but for the time the full ecosystem is not quite there. For example, from a gaming perspective, I am fully vested in both Sony’s and Microsoft’s online gaming systems. I have a core group of friends, games, achievements, etc, all tied to those platforms. The iPad with Game Center is getting there but still lacks the depth of something like XBOX live in my opinion when it comes to catering to the needs of hard care gamers. This shift could happen at some point in time but as for right now I am still convinced that dedicated mobile gaming platforms have a place in the market. Considering Sony announced they have sold well over 1.2 million Vita’s since the launch I’d say consumers agree as well.

Next Column: Why Microsoft Should Make an XBOX Mobile Game Console

Maybe Apple Can Fix Television; Someone Has To

Not long before his death Steve Job famously told biographer Walter Isaacson that he had “finally cracked” the problem of television. No one knows quite what he meant, and Apple has shed no light on the subject, but for the sake of the future of TV, let’s hope Steve left something important behind.

Photo of LG booth
The LG booth at CES 2012

At the International Consumer Electronics Show, the overwhelming feeling I got about television is stasis. My colleague Patrick Moorhead has a solid piece on TV makers’ experiments with new user interfaces. But those remain experiments, with no commitment to when, or if, we will see them on TVs you can actually buy. And the user interface, while desperately in need of improvement, is only one piece of a much bigger puzzle.

Related Column: How Sony can beat Samsung and LG on Smart TV Interfaces
The sad truth if you had told me that the TV displays in the Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony booths were actually left over the the 2011 show, I wouldn’t have argued with you. The main difference was much less emphasis on 3D, which the makers now realize is just a feature, not a revolutionary product. Only LG’s booth showed real commitment to 3D, and not necessarily in a good way. Its booth was a jarring riot of gimmicky 3D images coming at you from all sides, an effect allowed by LG’s move to passive, battery-free glasses that don’t need to sync to a particular set. Both LG and Samsung showed 55″ OLED displays, each claiming the world’s largest,  but to my eyes OLED remains oversaturated, garish, and a dubious improvement on LED-backlit LCD or plasma.

Even the internet connected TVs, which the makers promoted as this year’s big thing, seemed tired. Basically, they build the capability of a Roku box or other internet-connected device directly into the set. It’s an improvement in convenience, mainly though getting rid of one remote, but hardly enough to send anyone out to buy a new TV.

The fix TV desperately needs is an integrated solution. I want to get all of my TV–the stuff I get over cable as well as the content streamed over the internet in a single box that seamlessly combines all the sources. I don’t much care whether this is built into the set or done in a separate box–the box would have the advantage of allowing ample local storage, while a TV solution would probably have to rely on the cloud to save recorded programs. The difference in convenience is not very significant.

Such a solution would require a new user interface, something much better than Google managed for Google TV. But much more important, and much harder, it requires an entire new business model for content distribution. As I have written many times, the biggest impediment to a this breakthrough is not technology, since the technology needed to make it happen is available today, but breaking the iron triangle of content owners, networks, and cable and satellite  distributors who are prospering under the status quo. Can Apple succeed where everyone else has failed? I rather doubt it. But I’m cheering for them anyway.




How Sony can beat Samsung and LG on Smart TV Interfaces

As I wrote last week, Samsung and LG are following Microsoft’s lead in future interfaces for the living room. Both Samsung and LG showed off future voice control and in Samsung’s case, far-field air gestures. Given what Samsung and LG showed at CES, I believe that Sony could actually beat both of them for ease of interaction and satisfaction.

HCI Matters
I have been researching in one way or another, HCI for over 20 years as an OEM, technologist, and now analyst. I’ve conducted in context, in home testing and have sat behind the glass watching consumers struggle, and in many cases breeze though intuitive tasks. Human Computer Interface (HCI) is just the fancy trade name for how humans interact with other electronic devices. Don’t be confused by the word “computer” as it also used for TVs, set top boxes and even remote controls.

Microsoft recently started using the term “natural user interface” and many in the industry have been using this term a lot lately. Whether it’s HCI or NUI doesn’t matter. What does matter is its fundamental game-changing impact on markets, brands and products. Look no farther than the iPhone with direct touch model and Microsoft Kinect with far-field air gestures and voice control. I have been very critical of Siri’s quality but am confident Apple will wring out those issues over time.

At CES 2012 last week, Samsung, Sony, and LG showed three different approaches to advanced TV user interfaces, or HCI.

Samsung took the riskiest approach, integrating a camera and microphone array into each Smart TV. Samsung Smart Interaction can do far field air gestures and voice control. The CES demo I saw did not go well at all; speech had to be repeated multiple times and it performed incorrect functions. The air gestures performed even more poorly in that it was slow and misfired often. The demoer keep repeating that this feature was optional and consumers could fall back to a standard remote. While I expect Smart Interaction to improve before shipment, there’s only so much that can be done.

LG used their Magic Motion Remote to use voice commands and search and to be a virtual mouse pointer. The mouse


pointer for icons went well, but the mouse for keyboard functions didn’t do well at all. Imaging clicking, button by button, “r-e-v-e-n-g-e”. Yes, that hard. Voice command search worked better than Samsung, but not as good as Siri, which has issues. It was smart to place the mic on the remote now as it is closer to the user and the the system knows who to listen to.

Sony, ironically, took the safe route, pairing smart TVs with a remote that reminded me of the Boxee Box remote which has a full keypad one side. Sony implemented a QWERTY keyboard on one side and trackpad on the other side which could be used with a thumb, similar to a smartphone. This approach was reliable in a demo and consumers will use this well after they stop using the Samsung and LG approaches. The Sony remote has microphone, too which I believe will be enabled for smart TV once it improves in reliability. Today the microphone works with a Blu-ray player with a limited command dictionary, a positive for speech control. This is similar to Microsoft Kinect where you “say what you see”.


I believe that Sony will win the 2012 smart TV interface battle due to simplicity. Consumers will be much happier with this more straight forward and reliable approach. I expect Sony to add voice control and far field gestures once the technology works the way it would. Sony hopes that consumers will thank them too as they have thanked Apple for shipping fully completed products. Samsung and LG’s latest interaction models as demonstrated at CES are not ready to be unleashed to the consumers as they are clearly alpha or beta stage. I want to stress that winning the interface battle doesn’t mean winning the war. Apple, your move.

Samsung & LG Validate Microsoft’s Living Room Interaction Model

Microsoft launched Kinect back in November 2010 in a  move to change the man-to-machine interface between the consumer to their living room content.  While incredibly risky, the gamble paid off in the fastest selling consumer device, ever.  I saw the potential after analyzing the usage models and technology for a few months after Kinect launch and predicted that at least all DMA’s would have the capability.

The Kinect launch sent shock waves into the industry because the titans of the living room like Sony, Samsung, and Toshiba hadn’t even gotten close to duplicating or leading with voice and air-gesture techniques.  With Samsung and LG announcing future TVs with this capability at CES, Microsoft’s living room interaction strategy has officially been affirmed at CES and most importantly, the CE industry.

Samsung “Smart Interaction”sammy

Samsung launched what it called “Smart Interaction”, which  allows users to control and interact with their HDTVs.  Smart Interaction allows the user to control the TV with their voice, air-gestures, and passively with their face.  The voice and air gestures operate in a manner similar to Microsoft in that pre-defined gestures exist for different interactions. For instance, users can select an item by grabbing it, which signifies clicking an icon on a remote.  Facial recognition essentially “logs you in” to your profile like a PC would giving you your personal settings for TV and also gives you the virtual remote.

A Step Further Than Microsoft ?

Samsung has one-upped Microsoft on one indicator, at least publicly, with their application development model.  Samsung has broadly opened their APIs via an SDK which could pull in tens of thousands of developers.  If this gains traction, we could see a future challenge arise where platforms are fighting for the number of apps in the same way Apple initially trumped everyone in smartphones.  The initial iPhone lure was its design but also  the apps, the hundreds of thousands of apps that were developed.  It made Google Android look very weak initially until it caught up, still makes Blackberry and Windows Phone appear weaker, and can be argued it was the death blow to HP’s webOS. I believe that Microsoft is gearing up for a major “opening” of the Kinect ecosystem in the Windows 8 timeframe where Windows 8 Metro apps can be run inside the Kinect environment.

Challenges for Samsung and LG

Advanced HCI like voice and air-gesture control is a monumental undertaking and risk.  Changing anything that stands between a CE user and the content is risky in that if it’s not perfect, and I mean perfect, users will stop using it.  Look at version 1 of Apple’s Siri.  Everyone who bought the phone tried it and most stopped using it because it wasn’t reliable or consistent.  Microsoft Kinect has many, many contingencies to work well including standing in a specific “zone” to get the best air gestures to work correctly.  Voice control only works in certain modes, not all interactions.

The fallback Apple has is that users don’t have to use Siri, it’s an option and it can be very personal in that most use Siri when others aren’t looking or listening.  The Kinect fallback is a painful one, in that you wasted that cool looking $149 peripheral.  Similarly, Samsung  “Smart Interaction” users can fallback to the remote, and most will initially, until it’s perfected.

There are meaningful differences in consumer audiences of Siri, Kinect, and Samsung “Smart Interaction”.  I argue that Siri and Kinect users are “pathfinders” and “explorers” in that they enjoy the challenge of trying new things.  The traditional HDTV buyer doesn’t want any pathfinding or exploring; they want to watch content and if they’re feeling adventurous, they’ll go out on a limb and check sports scores.   This means that Samsung’s customers won’t appreciate anything that just doesn’t work and don’t admire the “good try” or a Siri beta product.

One often-overlooked challenge in this space is content, or the amount of content you can actually control with voice and air gestures.  Over the top services like Netflix and Hulu are fine if the app is resident in the TV, but what if you have a cable or satellite box which most of the living population have? What if you want to PVR something or want to play specific content that was saved on it?  This is solvable if the TV has a perfect channel guide for the STB and service provider with IR-blasting capabilities to talk to it.  That didn’t work out too well for Google TV V1, its end users or its partners.

This is the Future, Embrace It

The CE industry won’t get this right initially with a broad base of consumers but that won’t kill the interaction model. Hardware and software developers will keep improving until it finally does, and it truly becomes natural, consistent, and reliable. At some point in the very near future, most consumers will be able to control their HDTVs with their voice and air gestures.  Many won’t want to do this, particularly those who are tech-phobic or late adopters.

In terms of industry investment, the positive part is that other devices like phones, tablets, PCs and even washing machines leverage the same interactions and technologies so there is a lot of investment and shared risk.  The biggest question is, will one company other than Microsoft lead the future of living room?  Your move, Apple.