Sony may have smartphone struggles, but it's no HTC

Sony and HTC have some similarities in the smartphone space, but the breadth of the Japanese manufacturer presents opportunities that HTC just can't match.
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor

For a company as established as Sony, an inability to break into, let alone dominate, the mobile market in a big way is likely to be a disappointment.

Sony slogan CES
Sony's slogan at CES 2013 is 'Be Moved'. Image: Sarah Tew/CNET

Despite some well designed and solid feeling handsets in the Xperia range, Sony has failed to make a splash in the same way the Samsungs and Apples of the marketplace have in recent years.

For example, the Xperia S is Sony's current top-of-the-range handset (although it will be superseded by the water-resistant, full HD Xperia Z sooner rather than later), but I've never had anyone asking my opinion on whether it's a good phone. In fact, I've never heard anyone talking about it at all - a sign of how little buzz even its flagship device has been able to generate in the fiercely competitive mobile market.

That's not to say that Sony is floundering completely in the mobile space (that said, the badly executed Sony Tablet P is best forgotten): it recently overtook HTC as the number-two Android device maker in the UK and as number-three mobile maker in the country, at least according to the company's own estimations. However, look a little further afield, or in the swathes of analyst reports, and Sony doesn't even register in the global top five right now.

Sony has historically struggled in the mobile market. Even at the outset of its now-defunct joint venture with Ericsson back in August 2001, times were hard and Ericsson threatened to pull out if its market share didn't pick up. Fast-forward three years and the joint venture was still lumbering along, setting itself up for the launch of the first Walkman handsets in a strategy that included going big on camera and music functionality. It nearly worked too - until the iPhone came along.

It's a strategy that has parallels with fellow smartphone struggler HTC's current efforts. HTC's recent marketing activities around its handsets, whether Android or Windows Phone, have tended to include a tie-in with a specific celebrity and some Beats Audio features or headphones. For the Windows Phone 8X by HTC, it also went to work on the camera features too - a little like Sony's approach to mobile back in 2005, which worked for a while until more compelling features and handsets came to market.

Sony's reach

However, while HTC is now struggling due to a crowded marketplace and a difficulty distinguishing itself on price, design or features, Sony's mobile outlook could be much brighter because of the reach of its businesses. The company also has one other trump card above fellow manufacturers like HTC, which is an integrated approach to its devices and services.

"Sony is in a better position than HTC as they have a much wider breath of products that can lure consumers into their ecosystem" — Carolina Milanesi, Gartner

"Sony is in a better position than HTC as they have a much wider breath of products that can lure consumers into their ecosystem," says Carolina Milanesi, mobile analyst at Gartner. "Although Sony has been trying to follow an Apple model for many years and not being particularly successful in selling a Sony home... I think times have changed and consumers today especially in the high end do see the benefit of an integrated offering that gives you higher compatibility and ease of use."

However, with all the pieces in place and the completion of its extrication from Sony Ericsson, Sony will want to make 2013 count in the mobile market or it will face an uphill struggle to grow, or even maintain, its market share globally.

"Sony needs to deliver after having taken the time to integrate the mobile part into one Sony, and show what they have to offer," Milanesi says. "Between devices accessories and content they have something that can be compelling in 2013."

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